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Dusty Baker and the 20th anniversary of game 6

The old Giants manager is back in the World Series with the Astros 20 years after an infamous moment with San Francisco in the Fall Classic

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Today, October 26th, is the 20th anniversary of Game 6.

The sting of that infamous late-inning meltdown way back in 2002 has been numbed and balmed by the three even-year wins in the past decade—but re-living that 5-run lead collapse and the first World Series championship in nearly 50 years fumble from the Giants’ grasp as wealthy Lucille Bluths shake their bejeweled wrists, banging noise makers from their luxury boxes, while Mickey Mouse multi-millionaires wave stuffed monkeys in the air is still hard to stomach.

How is it that the California Los Angeles Angels of Orange County Anaheim—who have never been assured enough as a team to even locate themselves within their state—beat Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent and our San Francisco Giants?

Game 6 was a disaster, but for 6.1 innings it wasn’t. The Giant were up 3 games to 2 in the best-of 7 series. Veteran Shawon Dunston had launched a 2-run homer in the 5th to break up a 0-0 tie. Kenny Lofton followed the smash with a double before stealing 3rd and scoring on a wild pitch. Bonds went deep the next inning. After 6 innings, the Giants led by 5 and were 9 outs away from sealing the city of San Francisco’s first championship.

Starting pitcher Russ Ortiz had given up only 2 hits. He wasn’t mowing Angels hitters down (reminder: this was the early 2000s) but he was generating weak contact, a lot of groundballs and he was efficient. Anaheim’s first hit was an infield single in the 4th which was erased on a double-play. Their second was a broken bat single.

More importantly, he was working through a batting order that had left him shell-shocked six days previous. In game 2 of the series, Ortiz allowed 7 runs before stumbling off the mound able to notch only two outs in the 2nd inning. The Angels would go on to win that game 11 - 10.

With a runner on second in the 6th and two outs, Ortiz walked Darin Erstad to create his first real jam of the evening. The Giants bullpen started to warm as Dave Righetti held a conference on the mound.

Number 3 hitter Tim Salmon, batting .364 in the series, stepped up to the plate. Salmon had dealt the knock-out blow to Ortiz in game 2 by scooping a two run homer over the low wall in left field. Fox broadcasted a replay of that hit. The memory breached the surface of Ortiz’s face as he toed the rubber, wiping sweat from the corner of his mouth. Someone in the stands shook a large stuffed Sockeye above their heads to summon the power of the anadromous fish. If Salmon reached, his night was done. But Ortiz jumped ahead in the count, flashed a low-away curve nowhere near the strike zone to set-up a 93 MPH center-cut fastball that froze the slugger for the K.

It was only his second strikeout of the evening, but it was a statement, ending the inning on his terms. The story was told, the dragon slayed, and the final 9 outs were to be a graceful denouement. Walking off the mound, Ortiz allowed himself a resolute fist pump.

In 2022, Russ Ortiz wouldn’t have gone out in the 7th. In 2022, given the recent history from game 2 and it being his third time facing the Anaheim lineup, he probably wouldn’t have pitched to Salmon either. The prevailing wisdom surrounding starters and relievers have fundamentally changed in these past two decades—philosophically 2002 was closer to 1952 than it is now. But looking back, you can make sense of the decisions Dusty Baker made. And absolutely yes, a thousand times yes, after back-to-back singles from Troy Glaus and Brad Fullmer with one out in the 7th to put runners on first and second, Ortiz’s night was done.

On cue Baker emerged from the dugout with his head down, juggling his toothpick in his mouth, to pull his starter. Felix Rodriguez had been warm since the 6th and Baker gestured for him and took the ball. As Ortiz stepped towards the dugout, Baker pulled him back, said something in his pitcher’s ear as the Fox broadcast cut to commercial Baker did the stupidest, worst possible completely wrong, bordering on morally offensive thing you could do as a manager in that moment: he handed Ortiz the game ball.

My uncle Kirk let out a groan thinking about it 9 years later. A guttural note, coming from the core of his being, a collective place that connects the front room of my grandmother’s house in Salinas with homes around the sickle of Monterey Bay and the incline of the Santa Cruz Mountains and highway 17 pass into Los Gatos and San Jose and Silicon Valley, up the Peninsula to the City, across the bridge to the Marin headlands and up highway 101. This Bay Area body.

The Giants had won in 2010. My uncle had stopped following baseball like he used too—but none of that mattered. The bell still tolled somewhere deep within his temple. The Why? Why? Why? still echoing, refusing to dissipate into the ether.

Why did Dusty Baker hand over that ball?

The moment has been content fodder for years. Questioned, bemoaned—though Baker has never regretted the decision.

On the mound, he asked Ortiz if he wanted the ball and the pitcher said ‘yes’ as his teammates congratulated him. For Baker, it wasn’t about the game—the Angels never factored into the equation—it was a personal moment of triumph for Ortiz. He had done his job and done it well against a team that had sandblasted him earlier in the series. The ball was a ‘thank-you’ And Ortiz still treasures the token of gratitude.

No matter how pure the sentiment was, the Angels bats did what competitors do in those moments: Make it about them, turn their opponent into cocksure and arrogant devils to fuel and focus them. In other words, force themselves back into the equation. (Another reminder: Yes, the Angels were the American League Wild Card team but they also won 99 games and had the second best record in the league—they weren’t slouches).

Scott Spezio battled Felix Rodriguez and on the 8th pitch of the at-bat, he knocked a three-run homer. Bullpen stalwart Tim Worrell gave up a home run to start the 8th. A fly into center fell for a single in front of Lofton in no-doubles defense. Barry Bonds, one of the greatest players of all time, slipped over-running a flare into shallow left and a weakly hit dying quail coupled with an error put the winning run into scoring position. Closer Robb Nenn linked up with Worrell and surrendered a Troy Glaus double out of Bonds’s reach that proved to be the game winner.

Man, sports are fun. Isn’t it incredible that we still care about this? That such a small moment can still haunt us—and still be relevant twenty years later with Baker leading the Houston Astros to the 2022 World Series.

This is his third trip to the Series and the second in as many years with Houston. His managerial career is as storied as it is cursed. In his 25 years leading a team, he’s made it to the playoffs 12 times with each of the 5 clubs he’s helmed.

‘22 is his 7th consecutive season in the postseason. The October campaign has stalled in the Division Series or before on seven occasions: twice with San Francisco (‘97 & ‘00), thrice with the Cincinnati Reds (‘10, ‘12, ‘13 Wild Card) and twice with the Washington Nationals in back-to-back game 5’s (‘16 & ‘17). He’s never won the Fall Classic.

In 2003, he watched from the Chicago dugout as a 3-1 NLCS lead over the Florida Marlins crumbled, aided by the infamous “Bartman Incident” (or more likely an Alex Gonzalez error).

The Reds held a commanding 2-game lead over the Giants in the 2012 NLDS when a passed ball and error by veteran Scott Rolen at third allowed the winning run to score in the 10th inning of game 3. That comeback—and/or Baker’s anguish—was finalized by Buster Posey’s grand slam off Mat Latos two days later.

I don’t think the moment with Ortiz haunts Baker, but I bet over the years and the various playoff disappointments, it has nagged him.

Picture Dusty on a restless night, one arm hung over the baseboard of his bed like he’s on the top step of the dugout, juggling his toothpick in his mouth—not regretting what he had done, but indulging in the fantasy, the speculation of what if...