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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

If Dusty Baker leaves Astros, Mets should waste no time signing him up

Manager Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros stands

Manager Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros stands on the field prior to Game Five of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on October 20, 2021 in Boston. Credit: Getty Images/Omar Rawlings

After all the bad decisions made by the Astros, the hiring of Dusty Baker was a brilliant one for the scandal-ravaged franchise.

But if they’re foolish enough to let him walk when this playoff run is over, the Mets should dial up Baker as soon as possible after the final out.

Baker’s contract expires at the end of the World Series, and the Astros — whether they win a ring or not — could decide the damage-control chapter of their cheating saga is now closed.

After firing AJ Hinch as manager, they gave Baker a one-year deal for the 2020 season, then picked up his option for what they probably figured was enough time to quiet the echoes from those banging trash barrels.

The calculus for enlisting Baker in the first place was simple. What made more sense than the most hated team in America tapping one of baseball’s most beloved personalities to navigate them through a venom-filled wilderness?

On that sunny day in February 2020, when the Astros finally staged a news conference at their West Palm Beach complex to (presumably) show remorse for their cheating ways, the usually affable Baker looked like a glum hostage among the guilty. My feeling at the time was that if anyone could pull this off, it was Baker, now a 72-year-old baseball lifer who previously had managed four teams, guiding each of them to the playoffs at least once.

And while the pandemic shutdown shielded the Astros from vengeful road ballparks in 2020 because there were no fans in the stands, Baker was instrumental in weathering the avalanche of hostility from the jump, lending his credibility to a franchise that had obliterated its own.

Along the way, Baker helped steer a deeply talented Astros team to a pair of playoff berths, getting to within a Game 7 loss (to the Rays) of the World Series last season before reaching the Fall Classic by knocking off the Red Sox in six games this year.

After Friday night’s 5-0 win in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Baker was asked what it was like to be handed the reins of a disgraced team and overcome so much baggage to get to the brink of a championship. He actually drew some comparisons to his own personal struggles and defying perceptions throughout his career.

"When I got to different jobs, I heard mostly criticism," Baker said Friday night. "You didn't do this, or you're not good at that. You don't know how to use your bullpen or you don't like young players. I heard a whole bunch of stuff. Most of it not complimentary, you know what I mean? As an African-American, most of the time they don't really say that you are of a certain intelligence. That's not something that we usually get, and so I've been hearing a lot of this stuff most of my life.

"It just depends on how I feel about myself, how they feel about me, and how the Lord feels about me. And like I tell these guys, you don't have anything to prove or show anybody. The only entities that you have to satisfy are God, family and yourself, and then the other people can see you later."

We bring up Baker in relation to the Mets for a few reasons. While Steve Cohen’s new $2.5 billion toy isn’t digging out from the sport’s worst cheating episode, they have some demons to exorcise, from front-office dysfunction to a clubhouse that could benefit from an accountability infusion.

I’ve always said that managing the Mets is among the toughest jobs in pro sports. Even with the Wilpons' meddling now out of the equation — Jeff Wilpon was a nightly postgame visitor to the manager’s office — Cohen’s Twitter presence is a wild card that further raises the temperature on a gig that already comes with a white-hot spotlight. You also get tagged with the Mets’ continuing narrative of darkly comedic failure, perpetuated by the media capital of the world.

That’s why, in part, newbies are chewed up and spit out with regularity. Mickey Callaway had a number of underlying issues that weren’t uncovered until he was gone, but his small-market mentality helped doom him. Ultimately, the job was too big for the inexperienced Luis Rojas, who abruptly was thrust into the role a few years too early after Carlos Beltran’s January firing, also stemming from the Astros' cheating scandal.

The next Mets manager needs some gravitas, a reason to be automatically respected in the clubhouse, with a charismatic presence able to address problems head-on in the public arena. Despite the diminished view of managers industry-wide in the 21st century, that shouldn’t apply to the Mets, who would greatly benefit from a Baker or Buck Showalter in that chair.

Throughout his Astros tenure, Baker has been praised for his ability to both counsel players and communicate with the front office. The most successful managers are able to direct the credit to the players during the good times and deflect the bullets when things go bad.

"When you can identify with the people that you're with no matter what age they are, you know, it's easier to get along and identify the struggles that they're going through," Baker said. "I feel very fortunate to have this group of guys and to be in this position to possibly win the World Series."

The Mets have plenty of work to do this offseason. Clearly their re-branding effort under Cohen is far from finished. And if Baker becomes a free agent, he’s the type of proven narrative-changer who could work his magic in Flushing.

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