CHICAGO -- Three years ago on the final weekend of the season, the Chicago Cubs were zeroing in on a division title and Dusty Baker was the toast of the city. A familiar slogan seen around Wrigley Field read like this: "In Dusty, We Trusty."
Now with three games left in one of the worst seasons of his managerial career, Baker's contract is about to expire, his critics are everywhere and daily speculation centers on who will replace him.
General manager Jim Hendry said months ago that Baker's status would be determined at the end of the season, one filled with injuries to key players like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Derrek Lee and characterized by an abundance of poor play.
Baker sounded Friday like a man who knows he's not coming back, even if he doesn't have the official word. Has he been beaten up by the experience?
"It's like you come to work without a future contract and you keep reading about different people taking your job or who is available, the bad job you're doing or whatever," Baker said. "And I know the reality of things. I know the job I've done under the circumstances. Yeah, sometimes you feel beaten up. There is a difference between being beaten up and beaten down. You can beat me up, but you can't beat me down. Know what I'm saying? There is a difference."
The Cubs were five outs away from the World Series in 2003 before a collapse in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, a nightmarish inning whose memory still lingers. Even though Chicago rebounded next season and was in position to win the wild card until a final-week fade, the Cubs have not regained the form they had in Baker's first season when he was hailed as a savior for a franchise that hasn't won a World Series since 1908.
Wood and Prior, the two pitchers around whom the Cubs rested their hopes, have been injured frequently since 2003. This year they have combined to start 13 games and win just two and will end the season on the disabled list. Lee, the 2005 NL batting champ, has played in just 49 games after breaking his wrist and most recently dealing with an illness to his daughter.
So has Baker been treated fairly, considering what has happened to his team?
"People are always going to look for a reason and somebody to put the reason on, so like I said, what is fair and unfair, I haven't really figured that out in life yet," Baker said.
Saying he didn't deal in excuses or alibis, Baker said he would be managing somewhere in the future and would be back on top as he was in 2002 when he didn't return to the San Francisco Giants after leading them to the World Series.
"Yeah. I like what I'm doing and I know what I'm doing," Baker said. "And I know what the circumstances have been. I know myself. I was thinking about Larry Brown last night. Larry had a bad year in New York with the Knicks. Does that mean he doesn't know how to coach anymore? It doesn't work like that. You just don't lose it that quickly. You don't lose it at all. Look at Joe Paterno. He's still got it. ... I actually gained from this experience."
Baker admitted the uncertainty and silence from the front office has been tough on him and his staff. He said there has not been a meeting set up with Hendry after the season ends. Hendry declined comment Friday.
Baker said he planned to enjoy the Cubs' final three games against the Rockies -- Chicago was an NL-worst 65-94 entering Friday.
"You get a little melancholy and a little sad about the season and the results. It's hard to swallow, it's a hard pill to swallow. But you swallow it and take it and learn from it," he said. "That's what you got to do. It's sort of like you're waiting on the word and you're trying to figure out what your reply to the word is going to be. ... It's sort of like waiting on your dad to get home from work and you know something is going to happen when he gets home from work."
Asked to compare his current situation and the one that precipitated his departure in San Francisco when he and owner Peter Magowan had differences, Baker said it was obvious.
"Well, I was there a lot longer, you know. I thought I'd be here longer. You always think that," he said.
"It's different because at the end in San Francisco I was negotiating from strength on top and here I'm negotiating from a weaker position from the bottom," he said.