Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. left, celebrates with the team on the field after defeating the New York Yankees in Game 4 to win the American League Championship baseball series, Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

By Terrance Harris

Dusty Baker smiled as only he seems to be able to and his team began a celebration that started Sunday night and spilled into the morning.

The Astros are headed back to the World Series.

Actually, let’s amend that. The Astros are headed back to the World Series for the second straight year. And as great of a collective talent as the Astros are right now, none of this could have been possible without the man smiling in the middle of the celebration following the 4-0 sweep of the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

At a time when the Astros dynasty could have crumbled prematurely in wake of the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, Baker stoically stepped in as manager and the American League dominance has continued.

Now it’s time for Baker and the Astros to complete the job. And that starts in earnest on Friday when they host the National League champs Philadelphia Phillies in Game 1 of the Fall Classic at Minute Maid Park.

It’s been a challenging trek for Baker and the Astros, but it’s been one they have seemed destined for.

“It’s a long road to get here,” Baker said. “There’s a lot that happens in the months to get here from Spring Training. It means that we persevered and we stayed together, and we made the necessary trades when we had to try to strengthen certain parts of our team. These guys are a very close-knit bunch of guys.”

The closeness that is felt in the Astros clubhouse is all a reflection of the team’s manager. Baker, who has been class personified since he was first written into a Major League Baseball lineup card at the age of 19 in 1968, returned a dignity to the franchise when it was all about to fall apart before he came aboard prior to the 2020 season.

Fingers were being pointed in the clubhouse and the manager and general manager had been fired in wake of the sign-stealing scandal that tainted the Astros’ World Series title in 2017. But Baker, undoubtedly one of the best baseball men out there, came in and held it together by just being himself.

His players recognize what his presence and baseball knowledge did in righting the ship and as a result they seem more committed than ever to giving Baker the one thing that has eluded him in his illustrious career and that is a World Series title.

“One hundred percent,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said of the club’s desire to win this one for Baker. “We love going out there every single day and competing for him. He loves this team. He loves winning. He loves the game of baseball. And 100 percent we want to win for him.”

And make no mistake about it, Baker is as energized for this run as anyone in the Astros’ organization. Don’t let his 73 years of life fool you.

“I stay hungry,” said Baker, who this season became just the 12th manager in AL/NL history to win 2,000 games. “Some people, most people, are rooting for us; some people are rooting against us. It doesn’t matter. That motivates you either way. There are a lot of positive thoughts coming our way. There are a ton of positive thoughts and spiritual togetherness in the city of Houston.”

Perhaps more now than ever, the Astros seem poised to win it all. They are playing dominant baseball in all phases as evidenced by their 7-0 playoff run so far, becoming just the fifth team in MLB history to start the postseason with at least seven straight wins after sweeping the Mariners (3-0) in the ALDS and then taking down the Yankees in four games.

The toughness the Astros have displayed comes back to the man in charge. He has connected with this club and city in ways that few thought possible when owner Jim Crane hired Baker more for his spotless reputation than for the Hall of Fame managerial career he has put together in 30 years of running clubs.

“He relates to his players,” Justin Verlander said. “I think he takes a lot of pride in that. I think he really tries to get to know everybody individually and understand what makes them tick and try to connect with them on more than just a manager-player-type level, and that goes a long way.”

Baker has now led the Astros to three straight ALCS appearances and back-to-back World Series, but amazingly his run in Houston could be four wins or four losses away from ending as he is on an expiring one-year deal as he was last season.

But don’t expect to hear Baker complain.

“I don’t want to be a distraction to my team,” Baker said to reporters at Yankee Stadium. “I’ll let you know at the end of this year.”

And if all goes as planned, he will be letting us know about next year with a World Series Championship trophy in tow.