If we've learned anything new about Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker in April and May, it's that the man has a flair for child care.
For years, Baker has been characterized as no fan of young players -- a perception that would suggest he's intolerant of mistakes, impatient with growing pains and unwilling to endure the inevitable hiccups that the maturation process brings.
Jim Leyland craves nicotine. Tony La Russa is autocratic. Lou Piniella is a walking Vesuvius. And Dusty Baker, when he's not subjecting young pitchers to overly onerous workloads, is supposedly a "veteran's guy."
Not true, claims Baker, who insists this bogus notion was concocted by a San Francisco radio critic -- the same guy who was fired for saying that former Giants manager Felipe Alou had Cream of Wheat for brains. Baker calls the rap against him "asinine," along with an eight-letter word that begins with "bull."
"When I came up to the big leagues, I had Hank Aaron not only telling me what to do, but showing me what to do, and that was a blessing," Baker said. "I always yearned for a team full of young kids so I could teach them how to play."
The people I get along best with, honestly, are elderly people and young people. The people that don't like me most of the time are people my own age, because I don't think like them.
In a roundabout and constantly evolving fashion, Baker got his wish. Two months into the Reds' 2008 season, class is in session.
As Ken Griffey Jr.'s 600-homer watch drags on ad infinitum and Cincinnati muddles along in fifth place in the National League Central, the team's warts are readily apparent. The Reds are tied for third in the league in homers but rank 10th in runs scored. They're also 14th in fielding percentage, 12th in starting pitchers' ERA, and 10-22 on the road.
Still, the fits and starts are easier to take because of the glimpses of the future that were on display during a four-game series in Philadelphia this week:
" Joey Votto, who staked a full-time claim to the first-base job when the Reds released Scott Hatteberg, broke up a Brett Myers no-hitter in the seventh inning and drove in two runs in Cincinnati's only victory in the series Wednesday. Votto's .875 OPS is second to Cubs catcher Geovany Soto's among major league rookies.
" Starter Edinson Volquez, acquired from Texas in a December trade for outfielder Josh Hamilton, looks like an All-Star Game lock with his 8-2 record and 1.32 ERA. Volquez is the first pitcher since Al Benton of the 1945 Detroit Tigers to allow two or fewer runs in his first 12 starts in a season.
" Former No. 1 draft pick Homer Bailey returned from the minors Thursday and threw a quality start in a 5-0 loss.
" Second baseman Brandon Phillips went 2-for-15 against the Phillies, but he stole two bases and is on pace for his second straight 30-homer, 30-steal season.
" Rookie sensation Jay Bruce is hitting .432 despite back-to-back oh-fers against Myers and Cole Hamels. Even as people anoint him as the second coming, Bruce gushes over the privilege of playing alongside Griffey.
"It's surreal," Bruce said. "Like I've been telling people, there's only one Ken Griffey Jr. There's never going to be anyone who takes his place or steals spotlights from him. It's a pleasure and an honor to play on the same team with him and watch him approach history."
After seven straight losing seasons, the Reds are reaping the benefits of a farm system that has vaulted from 29th to third place in the Baseball America talent rankings. Former general manager Wayne Krivsky, who was fired in April and replaced by Walt Jocketty, did his part to ensure continuity with several astute moves.
True, Krivsky gave out some bad smaller contracts to the likes of Corey Patterson, Mike Stanton and Juan Castro. But he also picked up Phillips, shortstop Jeff Keppinger and reliever Jared Burton for next to nothing, and he acquired Hamilton in the Rule 5 draft and spun him into a deal for Volquez.
Even the trade for which Krivsky was most vilified -- Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez to Washington for bullpen help -- is looking much better in hindsight. Lefty Bill Bray has pitched well in relief, and starter Daryl Thompson, 5-2 with a 1.55 ERA in the minors, could be on the verge of joining Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Bailey as youthful sidekicks to Aaron Harang in the rotation.
If you think Baker was oblivious to the surplus of young talent when he signed a three-year deal in October, guess again.
"Heck yeah, that was one of the things that sold me," Baker said. "It was one of the things that sold me [with the Cubs]. Before I go someplace, I ask somebody to research for me what they got coming."
For those who suggest he's anti-youth, Baker points out that he has run a baseball school in California the past 25 years and has a 9-year-old son, Darren, scampering around the house. Though Baker's teams in San Francisco generally were veteran-oriented, he'd find a place for a Royce Clayton here and a Marvin Benard or Darren Lewis there if they were ready to contribute. He did the same in Chicago for Matt Murton and Ronny Cedeno.
"Watch all the kids and how they gravitate toward me," Baker said. "The people I get along best with, honestly, are elderly people and young people. The people that don't like me most of the time are people my own age, because I don't think like them."
Baker calls everybody "dude" by force of habit, wears wristbands to wipe the sweat off his forehead (not because he's still clinging to his playing days) and chews his trademark toothpick because it keeps him off tobacco. He's open to new ideas in his reading, well-versed in his music and eternally progressive at age 58.
"Dusty can be a military sergeant at times, but he's about as cool and as hip as you're ever going to find in a manager," said Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo. "This guy is out at the jazz clubs and he knows all the hot spots in town. In his mind he's still 21. He's fun because he can relate to the things that he knows guys want to do on and off the field."
There's a special challenge, of course, in managing a club in transition. The Reds still have 11 potential free agents on the roster, and that makes it tougher for Baker to sell the concept of team over individual accomplishments.
The biggest decisions this winter will revolve around the corner outfield spots, at which Griffey has a $16.5 million club option awaiting him and Dunn is eligible for free agency.
There are legitimate reasons to think the Reds might hang on to Dunn. Owner Bob Castellini is a Dunn admirer, and it wouldn't make a lot of sense for the Reds to sever ties with Dunn only to turn around and pursue a Raul Ibanez, Bobby Abreu or Pat Burrell. Dunn has averaged 41 homers and 100 RBIs per season the past four years and has a career on-base percentage of .382. You just don't replace that kind of production overnight.
The contrasting view is that Dunn might be ready for a change of scenery at 28. He took an emotional hit when the Reds traded his buddy Kearns to Washington, and he's grown tired of the trade rumors that have swirled around him in recent years. Sources say that Dunn also was less than thrilled last year when Bill Cunningham, a local radio provocateur who works for the Reds' flagship station, said Dunn played left field as if he were "drunk," and the club didn't exactly rush to his defense.
Dunn told the Reds that if he were going to sign an extension, it would have to be during spring training. That failed to materialize, and he's not interested in renewing talks or hashing out what-if scenarios now.
"I worry about all that stuff when the time is right," Dunn said, "and right now the time isn't right."
As for Griffey, it's a virtual given that the Reds won't exercise his $16.5 million option. But Griffey and his agent, Brian Goldberg, aren't hard-liners, and Junior might be willing to come down on the price if the Reds were to tack a second year onto his deal. Still, that would tie him to the organization through his 40th birthday, and the organization might not want to go down that road.
Goldberg said Thursday that whatever scenario transpires, he expects events to play out "professionally and amicably" because of the harmonious relationship that he and Griffey have with Cincinnati ownership.
Seattle's implosion this season almost certainly has killed any thought of the Mariners' bringing in Griffey before the trade deadline. But the sentimental tug for a reunion is strong on both sides. With Richie Sexson's deal mercifully expiring this winter, one school of thought is that the Mariners could sign Griffey for a final curtain call at first base.
Baker is firm in his belief that the Reds should treat Griffey with the respect he deserves. The manager gained a greater appreciation for Griffey when he passed through the trainer's room recently and saw the "ugliest pothole scar I've ever seen" on Griffey's hamstring.
"Junior has given a lot to this game and this city," Baker said. "You go look at his body and his injury list, and he's left a lot of bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments out on that field. You dig up that field, and there's a lot of Junior bones in it."
As Griffey prepares to depart -- and Dunn ponders the possibility -- Baker can take solace in the presence of Bruce, Volquez and other talented young players who are ready to take their places. Cincinnati's bridge to nowhere has been replaced by a bridge to the future, and Uncle Dusty is perfectly at home in his role as project foreman.