As a rule, Dusty makes exceptions
Dusty Baker's revival as a San Francisco treat this week may actually serve a purpose beyond either raw entertainment or drippy sentiment. If you look closely enough, it may just reveal the blueprint for Baker's relationship with Sammy Sosa.
That was one of the questions, remember -- one of about a thousand connected with Baker's landing with the Cubs after being departed from the Giants at the conclusion of a World Series run. One of the questions, and perhaps the one most quickly tossed out after the obligatory ghosts-of-Wrigley foray, was about how Dusty would manage Sosa.
And the answer is: Exactly like that. Baker will manage Sosa as opposed to the mere mortals.
It's all there, embedded in Baker's history in San Francisco. His tenure with the Giants coincided with the greatest seasons of Barry Bonds' professional life, and without crediting Baker with drawing up the model for superstardom, the truth is that his willingness to set Bonds apart from the average players on the roster -- and even a little apart from the great-but-not-all-time-elites -- occupied a significant role in that development.
And while Bonds and Sosa aren't necessarily the same guy, elements of Baker's successful relationship with Bonds are beginning to trickle into his dealings with Sosa. It's early yet, of course. Things change. But the basics are there.
As a rule, Baker makes exceptions. He made exceptions for Bonds fairly routinely, exceptions involving such seemingly mundane and mandatory baseball team tasks as taking pregame infield or stretching with the fellas. They were minor concessions, when you get down to it, but it's safe to say that even the minor exceptions were enough to rankle some of Bonds' teammates from time to time.
You'd say that, wouldn't you, Jeff Kent?
Generally speaking, Dusty's reply to questions about Bonds being treated differently was to acknowledge, openly and without apparent rancor, that Bonds was, in fact, different. He did things other players didn't do, or couldn't. He operated on a different hum, as if tuned to a different wavelength -- but his preparation was beyond reproach. He could be maddeningly particular, but the payoff, to the Giants as a team, was enormous.
The media had a field day with it, and for good reason. It made for fine storytelling, the stuff about Bonds and his Barcalounger over on one side of the clubhouse, seemingly lockers and worlds apart from everyone else on the team. And the underlying truth, or maybe the implied larger truth, was certainly valid enough: Bonds was respected as a player without usually coming very close to being loved.
But Baker had long since concluded that, for Bonds, aloof and separate worked. And the manager had the unusual ability to make Bonds' teammates see that, too. If it required a little more of Baker's time on the side, so be it. The Giants spent a far higher percentage of Baker's tenure in good team chemistry than bad, up to and including the 2002 season in which Bonds and Kent famously fought in the dugout one night, yet drove the Giants to the brink of a Series championship together.
And so Baker bent. There were plenty of times over a decade spent together when the manager found it appropriate to get after Bonds publicly or to respond sharply to a veiled criticism by his left fielder. But he bent when necessary, and certainly enough for his essential support of Bonds to be obvious.
Whether Baker's approach to Bonds could be a precise fit with Sosa is far less obvious. Sosa, after all, is a different cat. But one thing he and Bonds share in common is a sure sense of their standing in the game, and on that front Cubs fans can fairly expect Sammy to find a relatively receptive audience in Baker -- so long as he delivers.
It was a minor thing earlier this season, but noteworthy in its own right, that Baker rose in a fairly vocal defense of Sosa on the issue of the 500-homer milestone. It had been suggested by several respected baseball people, Arizona manager Bob Brenly among them, that the 500-plateau was losing its luster in this homer-happy era of the game -- that 600 was likely to become the new mountain that sluggers had to climb to be recognized as elite.
Baker didn't use the occasion to simply lionize Sosa. Instead, he delivered an impassioned defense of the 500-homer mark itself, a mark Sosa was just then closing in on. Sosa thus publicly bathed in the reflected light of Baker's words.
It was classic Dusty. It was the same kind of tack he took dozens of times during his mostly happy, mostly successful, generally positive tenure with Barry Bonds in San Francisco. They'll be remembering it this week around Pac Bell Park.
Over at Wrigley Field, they might just recognize it as the blueprint.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com
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