AJ Hinch, Dusty Baker navigating different sides of the same coin

A month ago, when the world still felt predictable and baseball important, Dusty Baker and AJ Hinch were two sides of a damaged coin. The Houston Astros were the disgrace of baseball, a once extremely valuable currency in sharp decline. The Astros fired Hinch, who was without objection serving the yearlong suspension imposed on him by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the team's sign-stealing scandal. Baker had awkwardly replaced him, his high reputation providing the Astros the Good Housekeeping seal the organization needed to restore that currency, while the Astros provided him an unlikely fifth opportunity to win the World Series championship that has eluded him as manager.

A month ago, there was time and room for the outrage about who knew whether the next pitch was a cutter or a curve -- an outrage that now feels insignificant. There is only the time and interest in the drama of being human. The damaged coin, baseball, has been removed from circulation indefinitely, but the two men on each side of that coin nevertheless have begun a unique navigation that continues even as the game remains on hold.

Hinch, 45, is home in suburban Houston, part of baseball but also outside of it. He walks his dog with his wife and spends time with his two daughters, one a freshman in high school, the other a senior learning that the rites and rituals seniors traditionally care about -- graduation, parties, the conquering of high school and the challenge of college ahead -- are being denied to 2020 senior classes around the nation as schools close for the remainder of the school year. No pomp. No circumstance.

"Life lessons," Hinch said.

"Day 17 of self-quarantine. We aren't messing around," he texted me last week. "Walks, bike rides with the girls, and car washes in the driveway is our outlet."

Baker, 70, is at his home outside Sacramento. His son, Darren, a big league prospect who plays at Cal, is home after the university shut down the dorms. After a cruel rejection by the game -- Washington fired Baker in 2017 after he'd won 95 and 97 games the previous two seasons, and he received no offers to manage despite three Manager of the Year awards, 1,863 career wins and a National League pennant, in 2002 -- his return to the game lives in a form of suspended animation. He is back in uniform but without the existence of an official season yet. He returned from the Astros' spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Florida, before MLB delayed the start of the season and hasn't been back. Few players had remained at the Astros complex. Many went home. Baker, who was a Marine and is a leader by disposition, has been trying to keep track of the Latino players who were fearful of leaving the country in case travel restrictions, border closings or visa issues prevented them from returning should the games resume.

In a long several weeks, 2020 has rerouted and recalibrated the definition of the word "challenge." When camps opened, Hinch struggled emotionally. He felt baseball's migratory impulses. He was out of the game, and the Astros were outcasts, which meant there was a possibility he would be measured as one too. A person's reputation is the most important and fragile of possessions, one that takes a lifetime to build and an instant to destroy. Hinch's reputation in the game had long been strong -- he was one of the good ones. During the steroid era, through which he played his career, he was candid about not taking performance enhancers and acknowledging that the choice probably cost him the margin he needed to be a better and richer player. Now, for the first time in his life, he left the house uncertain of how the world -- professional and public -- would receive him.

"We were really building roots here. We were starting to be a presence in the community," Hinch said of Houston. "I didn't know what to expect. I was sort of walking around unsure about looking people in the eye, but it was comforting to see people be supportive. To be honest, it was a pleasant surprise, good to know you're not wearing a scarlet letter. You're not going to change the minds of the Yankee fan base, or the Dodger fan base, but people have been really good, and I mean that in a positive way."

No timetable has been set for society's attempt to return to normalcy, never mind a specific schedule for the resumption of the MLB season, but the question of timetable is not an unimportant one. Hinch's suspension stipulates one year, from January to the end of the 2020 World Series, but unlike a suspension for PEDs, it did not stipulate a specific number of games. If the 2020 MLB season is eventually canceled, Hinch could return to baseball next season having missed no more games than anyone else. MLB must decide whether Hinch's suspension will be complete -- or whether it hasn't yet begun.

If it is the former, he and the league will face questions of fairness. If it is the latter, they will face the question of unfairness, of Hinch potentially being out of the game for two years instead of one -- especially because he is not being paid. According to sources, MLB and the MLB Players Association are discussing the questions of the business clock. If the season is canceled, sources said, players will receive the same service time they received in 2019, meaning that if a player received a year or a month of service time in 2019, he alsowould in 2020.

"These are thoughts and questions I've really not had on my mind because it hasn't felt appropriate," Hinch said. "But certainly, once things get back up and running, it is a question that will require some clarification. I don't know the answer."

And Baker, brought in to heal and redeem the Astros, agreed to a one-year contract with a one-year buyout. Should the 2020 season be eliminated, the Astros must nevertheless honor Baker and retain him for 2021, even as the cheating scandal undoubtedly loses prominence, replaced by the uncertainty of a post-COVID-19 world. For a game that has wounded him repeatedly, the possibility that Dusty Baker could have returned to baseball without having managed a game for the Astros is an unconscionable and heartbreaking thought.

When Hinch broke into the big leagues in 1998 as the starting catcher with an Oakland A's team filled with potential -- Hinch, Ben Grieve and Miguel Tejada started that season, Eric Chavez followed in September, Tim Hudson in 1999, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito in 2000 -- Baker was on the other side of the Bay Bridge, managing Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent and the San Francisco Giants as the defending NL West champions. The A's were the rising talents, the Giants the established ones, about to break ground on a new ballpark that would forever change the fortunes of the franchise. But beyond a friendly hello during interleague or spring training, the two men never really crossed paths.

On the Astros, there is overlap between Hinch and Baker through referral; Hinch said that upon his firing, he recommended Baker to succeed him because the post-scandal Astros needed "an adult." The overlap is also through Gary Pettis, the former big league outfield speedster who has known Baker for decades and, as a longtime coach with the Astros, coached for five years under Hinch.

The reality of the coronavirus, already present, already life-altering, is also personal. Pettis left camp three weeks ago to tend to his mother, who then died from complications of a stroke. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented Pettis and his family from a proper funeral and memorial service.

Hinch mentioned A's minor league coach Webster Garrison, a former minor league teammate of Hinch's with the A's who is now fighting for his life, living on a ventilator in Louisiana after contracting the coronavirus. Both Hinch and former A's pitcher Dave Stewart (a teammate of Baker's on the 1981 World Series-winning Dodgers) were vacationing in different parts of Mexico. Stewart suffered flu-like symptoms, came home and self-isolated for 14 days, ultimately testing negative for COVID-19. Hinch and his family had reduced the choices of family vacation to San Francisco or New York -- eventually two hard-hit areas for coronavirus -- but chose Mexico.

For split seconds, glimmers in the mind allow people to think about when. When the games resume. When life gets back to normal. In telephone conversations since the shutdown, Baker slipped into thinking about the season, about the challenge of learning players, winning, the rhythm of the baseball life he craves. Hinch did the same, thinking about his eventual return to the game. It isn't because they possess some overly optimistic expectation that baseball will be played in 2020 but more because baseball is what they know, a habit to believe everything is going to be all right. There have been strikes, lockouts, World Series cancellations, but baseball has never been shut down for a full season in its 152-year history. While war has stopped Europe and other parts of the world, turning sheltering and rationing into a way of life for years, America has always been fortunate enough to play on -- until now.

"It is surreal. Sometimes we'll walk and not see anyone," Hinch said. "Others, we'll walk and see another person like 150 yards away and subtly go in another direction. Six feet is not a magic number. It's a scientific suggestion. But a friend of mine also said about the suspension and now this: You may find out you enjoy seeing your family more than six months a year and being away all the time. It's kind of weird to say, but it's nice to know you have a good family."

Meanwhile, Baker's task -- taking over a baseball team that spiraled the sport into a massive scandal and making the Astros' currency again valuable -- seems ephemeral now. Three weeks ago, we spoke in West Palm Beach about the message he had for his team in dealing with the hostility of road stadiums and retaliation of rival teams, and his fitness to lead Houston to the championship it nearly won last year. But the stadiums are empty now and "Dark Arts" and "Codebreaker" sound not only childish but meaningless in a world lacking testing kits and ventilators. Now, when Baker speaks, he does so not about baseball, or cheating, or redemption, but in a serious combination of biblical and survivalist tones about the belief and fortitude the times now demand.

"I was chosen for this. It's never been easy. I've never had the easy path, and because of that, I've never expected the easy path," he said. "You've got to have faith above all. You have to seek out the light, find a way out. You have to hang in there, and soon it'll get brighter and brighter. When you see the light, you go to it, and that's how we'll come out of this."

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