Full disclosure compels an admission: I go back 35 years with Dusty Baker. He’s one of the best people I’ve known in sports. He isn’t Ernie Banks, just happy to be here. He’s a proud man, proud of who he is, what he’s done, what he stands for.
Chicago didn’t get him. But San Francisco did. And Cincinnati does.
It was nice to see the emotional welcome Baker received last Saturday when he was introduced before Game 1 of the Reds-Giants National League division series in San Francisco: a hearty standing “O” that lasted more than a minute.
Baker’s recent health scare had something to do with it. All of baseball was happy to see him back in the Cincinnati dugout for the postseason.
Giants fans might not have been so magnanimous had they known Baker’s Reds would put a death grip on the best-of-five series with two straight road wins, but they couldn’t get mad at Dusty. Ten years after he last managed the Giants, he remains a Bay Area luminary, his toothpick and his wristbands and his lingo all symbols of an engaging, California cool persona.
Baker never got the credit he deserved for the Giants’ success during the Barry Bonds era, as if anyone could have won with that talent. But managing Bonds was no easy task. Baker excels at getting the most from his players.
Tony La Russa, a longtime and not always friendly rival, concedes that Baker is the best in baseball at managing “the six inches between a player’s ears.” Business consultants call it “emotional intelligence”—the ability to recognize what motivates each subordinate and provide it.
He knows what he’s doing in the dugout, obviously, and San Francisco is where he first proved it, making three postseason appearances and one trip to the World Series in 10 seasons. In pre-wild card 1993, the Giants stayed home despite winning 103 games. Three times Baker was National League Manager of the Year. The Giants finished first or second in NL West every year between 1997 and 2002.
That’s the type of sustained success the Cubs aspire to now that they have started over under Theo Epstein. They didn’t get it after hiring Baker away from the Giants despite a highly promising start that produced an out-of-nowhere division title in 2003—remember those “In Dusty We Trusty” T-shirts?
But Mark Prior and Kerry Wood got hurt and Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou got old and the farm system wasn’t exactly teeming with prospects, as Epstein would discover. By the time Baker was dismissed in 2006, he had become the fall guy for all of it. Critics said he didn’t enforce discipline and didn’t crunch numbers while overpitching Prior and Wood.
The Reds gave him an opportunity to reclaim his reputation, and he jumped at it. This year’s division title was their second in three years and Baker’s sixth overall; only Jim Leyland, with seven, has more among current big league skippers.
As badly as it ended in Chicago, Baker isn’t vindictive.
“I’m not popping my buttons until we win a couple of World Series,” he told me back in August.
An affinity for older players (hello, Neifi Perez) and an inability to manage a bullpen (LaTroy Hawkins is your closer?) were the most common gripes against Baker when he ran the Cubs. Let the record show that third baseman Scott Rolen and left fielder Ryan Ludwick are the only 30-somethings in the Reds’ starting lineup, and when injuries shelved Rolen and 2010 MVP Joey Votto for significant stretches, Baker gave rookie Todd Frazier a shot rather than implore general manager Walt Jocketty to acquire another veteran.
The bullpen, meanwhile, has been the best in baseball since Baker entrusted the closer’s role to 24-year-old Cuban flamethrower Aroldis Chapman after losing free-agent signee Ryan Madson to elbow surgery. Baker’s adept use of it was on display in Game 1 of the Giants series. There is no way to prepare for staff ace Johnny Cueto leaving the mound with back spasms after facing just one batter, so Baker improvised, using scheduled Game 3 starter Mat Latos for four innings and three relievers for 4 2/3. The Reds got a jump on the Giants with a 5-2 victory, then cuffed them around 9-0 behind warhorse Bronson Arroyo in Game 2.
All year long, and through two games in the playoffs, Baker has made all the right moves.
“Dusty is a good guy to be around, which is why players love to play for him,” said Joe Babich, a Sacramento attorney who is one of Baker’s closest friends. “He’s old school when it comes to baseball, but definitely new age in how he deals with people.”
Baker is clearly at the top of his game at 63, and a World Series win this year might finally get him recognized as one of the best managers in baseball. But how long he’ll keep at it came into question last month when he was hospitalized in Chicago with what was first described as an irregular heartbeat.
He’s in the last year of his contract and didn’t have to disclose that he also suffered a minor stroke, but he chose to even after Cincinnati doctors OK’d his return to the dugout. Baker is a stand-up guy. It’s as much a part of his persona as the toothpicks and the wristbands.
It’s a shame Chicago never appreciated him.
I suspect it says more about us than it does about him.