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Mudville: December 3, 2022 9:45 am PDT
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Meet the New Boss

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Not only do the Astros beat the Yankees – and every other team – like a drum, Jim Crane may be the closest thing to George Steinbrenner in the ownership ranks of baseball today.

Crane wants a lean, efficient fighting machine and people he can trust around him. And he is not totally beholden to analytics.

Mr. October Reggie Jackson is an advisor to the Houston owner. After so many years with the Boss, the Hall of Famer was not happy the way he was treated by those in Brian Cashman’s Yankees Camp and found a new home.

World Championships, Reggie and Dusty Baker, too.

Seems like a pretty good baseball start to me, plus some former Astros who also are around to advise Crane, a lot of baseball people in this day and age of the Nerds. Keep that in mind when you ponder the Astros latest moves, dumping GM James Click after Click did not take a one-year offer from Crane and also firing assistant GM Scott Powers, who came over from the Dodgers in January as head of quantitative analysis.

The pendulum is swinging a bit back to baseball, at least in Houston, as the Astros have produced a .622 winning percentage over the last six seasons with four AL pennants and two World Series trophies.

In covering the Astros I had a good number of conversations with Crane, who did not hide as an owner. He was in the clubhouse, in the press box, on the field before games and postseason workouts and I always felt he was the new age Boss; hands on in every way.

To me that’s a good thing – and the Astros six straight appearances in the ALCS and their World Series championship this season to act as bookends with their tainted 2017 electronic sign stealing championship is a significant amount of hardware during Crane’s tenure.

In some ways these Astros are more like the 1950s Yankees in their success than the Steinbrenner Yankees.

The Nerds and their enablers are up in arms how Crane got rid of Click but to me it all seems pretty simple. Crane has more faith in Dusty Baker and so do I. Baker has had to fight his front office quantitative analysis battles and I was told – even during the World Series – so to me, none of this is surprising.

As Dusty told a friend, “Everything is a debate.’’

That can grow tiresome when you are 73 and have been in Major League Baseball since 1968 at 19 years of age when Baker joined the Braves and was teammates with Henry Aaron.

Yes, Crane offered that one-year deal to Click but that was a shot across the bow of Click to let him know you and Dusty are in this together and I have more faith in Dusty at this point of the game. Dusty took his one-year deal and will be back to lead the World Champion Astros in 2023.

Dusty is a genius when it comes to relationships – and let’s not forget he stood up to Click when Click wanted to trade for Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and give up three years of control of pitcher Jose Urquidy. Dusty knows it’s all about pitching. Click was looking at the move as a numbers upgrade in the catching department over Martin Maldonado, but it really wasn’t. Dusty knew that it was Maldonado who was captain of that pitching staff and Maldonado was a joy to watch during the World Series, urging his pitchers on, demanding they do what he say, that’s leadership and that cannot come under a quantitive analysis category.

Mess up that formula and you mess up the Astros.

More teams need to do what the Astros do, having a baseball man like Dusty Baker truly be in charge even though he had to fight and debate over pretty much everything with the Astros front office.

Dusty Baker Jr. #12 of the Houston Astros participates in the World Series Parade on November 07, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

A baseball man like Dusty did not want to rock the pitching boat because he knew that pitching would carry the Astros to the title this time, not electronic sign stealing.

Then there was the lineup; Dusty had to fight to have young Jeremy Pena bat second and Yordan Alvarez third. The analytics people didn’t want that but in the end Pena, MVP of the ALCS and the World Series was key and always seemed to be on base when Alvarez homered.

In my friend Jayson Stark’s “Starkville’’ podcast broadcaster Brian Anderson noted that in his conversations with Baker, “He would fight for certain things. We had him in the regular season too and Ron (Darling) and I talk about this a lot, the one thing he fought for more than any – well, two things –Number One that Maldonado catches their top three pitchers because their top three pitchers wanted Maldonado… Number Two, he was adamant that Jeremy Pena hit second, adamant. They did not want him hitting second in the front office… While the front office won some of those measurements, Dusty did not relent on those two things specifically, and I mean Jeremy Pena, MVP ALCS, MVP World Series.’’

Dusty knew batting second was the best spot for Pena and the World Series title proved him right.

Crane saw the importance of all that and sided with the 73-year-old Baker. Crane is 68. He has been around the block too. He knows numbers are important, but he also knows his manager has a unique feel for the game and the players love playing for Dusty. I was there the first day of spring training in 2020 in West Palm Beach when Dusty took over the reeling Astros ship and Dusty laid out a simple plan, he was going to lead by getting the players’ trust and he did just that.

Houston Maylor Sylvester Turner and Jim Crane participates in the World Series Parade on November 07, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

James Click was there too and his press conference immediately after Dusty’s was much less awe-inspiring. Nerds, though, are gifted with intelligence to a certain degree but many don’t have great personalities. They do what they do. That’s fine and Click did a good job, especially building the bullpen, but when push came to shove, Crane chose the baseball man over the analytics expert and that is something for baseball to celebrate.

More teams need to do what the Astros do, having a baseball man like Dusty Baker truly be in charge even though he had to fight and debate over pretty much everything with the Astros front office.

Baker understood how much Maldonado meant to the pitching staff and did not want the distraction of having a soon to be free agent catcher in Contreras. Keeping Urquidy strengthened the Astros as well, you really can’t have too much pitching, even though the Astros are loaded with starting pitching. Baker also may have been looking ahead to Justin Verlander leaving the Astros as a free agent when another starter would be needed.

All those are sound baseball decisions and Dusty made his argument with Crane and Crane sided with his worldly manager not Click. To Baker’s credit he also had the courage to say why he opposed the Contreras deal, noting at the time, “I needed a guy who wasn’t going to complain about not playing every day. And this is (Contreras’) free agent year. See. That’s tough. When you trade for a player in his (free agent) year. Everybody’s about numbers and stuff, and I can’t blame them, no doubt. But that’s not what we needed.’’

The Astros settled on a trade for Christian Vazquez, that was a Nerd to Nerd deal with Click trading with Boston’s GM Chaim Bloom, who is running the Red Sox like a small market franchise. Vazquez gave Baker what he needed; a team-first veteran and he was able to keep Maldonado completely in charge of the staff.

Believe me, managers love when they have catchers that control a pitching staff physically and mentally, it is one less thing they have to worry about.

Martin Maldonado #15 of the Houston Astros celebrates in the clubhouse after defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 to win the 2022 World Series in Game Six of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 05, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Click & Co. were just looking at the numbers and the numbers made sense; but as often happens in today’s front offices, there is no look deeper at how a move affects the clubhouse or the beating heart of the team. Baker knows how it affects the clubhouse. That is the value of having baseball people in charge and Crane has a strong base of baseball people surrounding him in Baker, former players, and solid coaches that the Astros have as well.

You have to have the players to win championships but you also have to have the baseball knowledge.

One small example. Coach Joe Espada made sure that first baseman Trey Mancini stayed on the first base line, holding the runner and then not giving up the line in the eighth inning of Game 5 with the Astros leading 3-2. Mancini made like a hockey goalie and surrounded Kyle Schwarber’s smash down the line for the final out of the inning and Baker and Espada were ecstatic in the dugout.

Click made deals to strengthen the bullpen, but it was the Astros starters (signed in the Jeff Luhnow days) who made it all work going deeper into games and that is more of a baseball move than a analytics move when starters are yanked much too early these days. Baker pushed his starters and in the end the Phillies didn’t allow their ace Zack Wheeler to stay in the game – and that cost them the Game 6 clincher.

In the end, Jim Crane had to make a decision, trust his baseball people or give in and continue to enlarge the front office staff with more analytics under Click.

The Yankees under Hal Steinbrenner have done just that with Cashman and his merry band of Nerds, how’s that worked out?

Crane wants to keep his front office lean and if he has to come off as being mean to do it, evidently it doesn’t bother him one bit. Good for Jim Crane. Another GM will be put in place, maybe a GM who has a little bit more faith in Baker and the baseball people than in the numbers. No team has won back-to-back World Championships since the Boss Steinbrenner Yankees of 1998, ’99, 2000 when Derek Jeter and his teammates took the Yankees to three straight World Championships.

Dusty Baker Jr. #12 and Jeremy Pena #3 of the Houston Astros celebrate in the clubhouse after defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 4-1 to win the 2022 World Series in Game Six of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on November 05, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Since that time the pendulum has swung heavily in favor of analytics with the blessings of the media. It’s all about numbers in every aspect and less about baseball and people. With the shift banned next season – and middle infielders with range again an important factor and with it being much easier to steal those bigger bases – the smart teams will rely more on teaching fundamentals and athleticism, not numbers. The Astros are sitting pretty because they have a strong pitching staff that can command fastballs but can also spin the baseball. The Astros play strong defense. Throw in hitters like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Pena and Alvarez and the Astros should pick up where they left off and could finally become that team that wins back-to-back World Series.

Wouldn’t that be something? After a managerial career where Baker could not win the World Series, he just might win two straight becoming the first manager since Joe Torre (his old teammate with the Braves) to pull off such a feat. To do that Baker has to feel he has the ear of the owner. By Crane getting rid of James Click and Scott Powers he has shown his faith in Baker.

That sets up a fascinating story line for 2023. Jim Crane is more like George Steinbrenner than any other owner in the game. Hal Steinbrenner is the complete opposite. Funny how it all works out and Minute Maid Park is more like the old Yankee Stadium than this Yankee Stadium is like old Yankee Stadium.

The Astros have done a fabulous job scouting on the international market and that credit has to be given to Luhnow, who was fired by Crane after the electronic sign stealing scandal.

Manager Dusty Baker Jr. #12 of the Houston Astros talks with General Manager James Click during batting practice prior to Game Two of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Dusty has managed to erase the stink of that era as he punched his ticket for the Hall of Fame with this Astros victory. Crane has his tainted World Series trophy and his truly earned World Series trophy. He is going to do things his way, the Boss would be proud.

The Ivy League elites are upset with how Click was treated, but that’s life. He could have come back on a one-year deal, worked in unison with Baker and try to repeat. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Click came from the Rays. He has plenty of friends in the game and will land on his feet with some organization.

Dusty Baker will lead his way, with baseball and human heart guidance from his past.

I remember sitting in Baker’s office one day in Viera when he took over the Nationals. This was not like any other manager’s spring training office. I noticed on a shelf behind his desk he had John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.

In my decades in sports writing I had run across the Pyramid of Success before – and remember I covered the NBA – so I had multiple conversations with Bill Walton about Wooden and his pyramid.

I knew Dusty knows everyone there is to know so I looked closer at the pyramid and all the right words were there in addition to it being signed by John Wooden himself.

At the top of the pyramid are Faith (through prayer) and Patience (good things take time).

Good things like winning your first World Series as a manager 54 years after you first came into MLB as a player and 41 years after winning your first World Series as a player, something that took 13 years as a player to accomplish.

Yes, Dusty Baker has both faith and patience, and he will use that faith and patience to help guide Jim Crane and the Astros.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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