Dusty Baker a symbol of perseverance
After dealing with personal and professional crises, Reds manager now a 'happy' man
CINCINNATI -- "Light a candle," Dusty Baker says, his lone voice softly skimming the looming silence of the empty church. "I'm sure there's someone out there you want to pray for."
He lights a candle, points the flickering matchstick downward in his large hands, the athlete's hands, dousing it into the cool sand. It is here in the solitude of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral -- funded by Ohio Catholics who donated 12 cents per month toward its construction in 1841 -- where Johnnie B. Baker, born Baptist in California, raised in the traditions of the southern black church, kneels alone among the long pews and nourishes his spirituality.
After several moments of prayer, he rises and walks gingerly toward the altar, marveling at the Greek architecture, the Corinthian columns and stained glass mosaics, comforted, despite its bruises, by the sanctuary and the ritual of the church.
"I come in here before homestands, sometimes a couple of times a week during the season," said Baker. "I pray for my family, for my team, and for Barack Obama, because I've never seen people try to take a president down like this, never seen such anger. I mean, what did he do to anybody?"
History surrounds Baker this morning, as it does every morning. He is humbled by its density, energized by its lineage and his place in it. The ghosts are touching him. History is not something that happened to others a long time ago, but alive as the river upon whose banks his team plays. His baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, the original professional ballclub in America, proud but down and dowdy in an era of big money, is on the cusp of a first playoff series since 1995, revived by a man who has won three Manager of the Year Awards but was run out of two big jobs in San Francisco and Chicago, and out of baseball in 2007.
Thirty-eight years ago, Baker had just completed his fifth season in the major leagues when Jackie Robinson threw out the first pitch before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series between the Reds and Oakland A's at old Riverfront Stadium.
Robinson would be dead nine days later, but before he passed, he said famously he hoped there would one day be a black third-base coach or field manager in the major leagues. The National League, first to integrate, would not integrate the managerial ranks until 10 years after Robinson's death. Robinson died in 1972, and Baker, 36 years after, became the Reds' first African-American manager.
"I think about that. He said that here," Baker said of Robinson. "Imagine being able to win a World Series in the place where Jackie Robinson made his last public appearance, where he said that."
Baker lurches his silver Toyota Tundra along West 8th Street south, toward the Ohio River and the Great American Ballpark. The river stirs more ghosts. In September 1841, when the region's Irish Catholics donated their pennies to build St. Peter's, where moments earlier Baker's hands waded through holy water, black and Irish dockworkers engaged in three days of rioting, quelled only when the city dispatched the military.
The fighting took place above ground ("Riots and Mobs, Confusion and Blood Shed," wrote the Sept. 6, 1841, Cincinnati Daily Gazette) but under the streets, at the grassroots, whites and blacks conspired to subvert the system. Baker -- known since his playing days as a bridge between black, white and Latino players -- feels these ghosts, too, understanding that he, as the poet Maya Angelou once wrote, is the dream of the slave.
He points directly in front of him, at the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, situated next door to the ballpark, a museum that displays portions of the original Underground Railroad. He mentions that behind him, in the deep basement of the watering hole O'Malley's in the Alley off of Vine Street, just under his feet, remnants of other tunnels that weaved from the south to Canada, to freedom, still remain.
"You have to remember that Ohio was a free state and Kentucky was a slave state," Baker says. "The Underground Railroad was right here. Sometimes I close my eyes and think about that, about what that must have been like. 'Just get across the river and you're free. Just get across the river.'"
Forget all the details of everything that happened in San Francisco to turn a baseball renaissance into the bitterest memory: from former Giants managing partner Peter Magowan attempting to diminish Baker's achievements (as the walls closed in, Magowan once said that Baker's Manager of the Year awards had less to do with him and more with the organization), to the 5-0 lead and nine outs from the first World Series championship in San Francisco Giants history to the runaway envy that led club executives to privately refer to Baker derisively as their "celebrity manager." Forget Chicago 2003, when Baker was a hair from taking the Cubs to the World Series, up three games to one on the Florida Marlins, coming home with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior on the mound to close out the National League Championship Series. Forget Steve Bartman.
"Chicago wasn't good to me at the end, but it was good for me," Baker said. "You don't want it to end like that, because everybody wants to be the one to do it, to win the World Series. I still think I was the one to do it. Didn't happen."
Think instead first about him being a kid, and the promise of having your entire life in front of you, 19 years old, protected by the great Henry Aaron. It was Henry who promised Johnnie and Christine Baker back in 1967 to always look out for their son. It was Henry who introduced Dusty to the world, jazz clubs and civil rights and the big leagues. It was Dusty who was on deck when Henry hit home run No. 715 that night in April 1974. It was Dusty -- oldest child, Marines platoon leader, big league manager but always heir to Aaron and his dad and the dreams of Robinson -- who was always the prodigy.
Today, the prodigy is gone. Only the adult remains. Dusty Baker is 61 years old and the hell of aging conflicts with his boyish fire for baseball. His dad, Johnnie B. Baker Sr., always a signature presence in the dugouts pregame where his son managed, died in 2009 at the age of 84 from, as Dusty says, "diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia, everything."
This is a resilient team. The more we were tested, the more we came back and won. I kind of believed in July, after the All-Star break.” -- Reds general manager Walt Jocketty
To be the adult means looking ahead and seeing no one ahead of him, no one leading the way. It means walking to the mound to remove a pitcher while talking to your father, who is gone physically, as Baker has done this season.
In November 2001, after a routine checkup, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The doctors were aggressive, immediately removing the prostate -- no radiation treatments, no chemotherapy.
"They told me I had to have a PSA [prostate-specific antigen]. They had been charting me, told me it was 1.0, 2.1 and then they told me I spiked to 4.0 [PSA levels under four nanograms per millileter generally indicate the absence of cancer]. It wasn't a huge surprise because all the Baker-Russell men died early," Baker said. "They took out the entire prostate."
The 242 home runs he hit as a player, the three World Series appearances, all the years he walked into a bar and the place -- the women, especially -- went wild, all those years in the clubhouse as a member of the world-class athlete fraternity, all disappeared in the face of his mortality. Baker was the leader of a group of men whose identities are forged on the physical, and accepting the withering effects of cancer -- being unable to maintain an erection, for one -- was a difficult reality to confront.
"It changes your idea of your own manhood. You think you're this macho cat, but you're not," he said. "With some patients, the nerves never come back and you lose your erection permanently. With others, it can come back on its own. I was lucky, some of the nerves returned. Luckily, they have those blue pills these days, knock on wood. People may laugh, but these things mess with your head, make you rethink how you see yourself. You question your whole sense of being.
"Some of the guys used to make fun of me back then -- I'm not ashamed to say it -- because one of the side effects is incontinence. I was walking around wearing a diaper because I couldn't stop peeing all the time. The guys would see those things in my office, look at me and say, 'Are these your diapers?'"
Still, don't forget the slights because they are unimportant. Forget them because, they are today, in the face of disease attacking his body and age taking his family from him, unimportant gnats to be brushed aside. Still, Baker remembers them all, and at times in his office, hours before the Reds will clinch a division title, it requires enormous concentration for him not to think about the member of the Giants ownership team who once sat him down and told him he needed to learn to be "more of a company man." To not think about the fact that he has taken three different teams to the postseason, could win a fourth manager of the year award and yet finds himself constantly hounded by the criticisms of what he supposedly cannot do, that he cannot win with young players or handle pitching staffs.
More painfully, Baker still believes Magowan and the Giants showed a complete lack of compassion regarding his cancer.
"I was diagnosed in November 2001 and cleared in February 2002. I thought that was pretty fast, and yet there were people who were saying that I was asleep, incapable," Baker said. "And I made some choices. Everybody remembers my son Darren being on the field during the World Series and everyone saying that having him on the field was proof that I had gotten too big, that I was a 'celebrity manager.' They said I wore wristbands because I wanted to keep playing. I wear wristbands because I've always worn wristbands. They said I kept a toothpick in my mouth so I could be noticed. I chew on a toothpick to try and quit tobacco. My daughter dumps it out. My son wants me around. He wants me alive until I'm 130.
"But during that year, when every night I wasn't sure if I was going to wake up the next day, I wasn't going to miss an opportunity to see his face. I didn't know how much time I really had left. He was going to be with me at every opportunity, for every day that I had left."
A surprise for everyone
July 8, Philadelphia: The Reds are ranked 21st with a $68 million payroll and before this season hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 2000, when they won 85 games. With most winning clubs living on the margin, seasons are made and broken at critical junctures. The Reds enter Philadelphia for the final four games before the All-Star break with 11 more wins than losses, and the two-time defending National League champion Phillies represent a great test.
"When you're a manager, you have a pretty good idea if you have a shot, and a pretty good idea if you have too many holes," Baker said. "That weekend was the low point."
When it was over, the Phillies -- whom the Reds will play in the National League Division Series, beginning on Wednesday -- had swept the Reds, each game more excruciating than the last. In the opener, the Reds led and lost in 12. In the next game, the Reds led 7-1, gave up six runs in the ninth inning and then Ryan Howard ended it with a two-run homer in the 10th.
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The next night, rookie Travis Wood pitched a perfect game into the ninth against Roy Halladay. The Reds lost 1-0 in 11 innings. And in the finale, the Reds lost 1-0 again, swept into the All-Star break.
It appeared to be a nice story, the Reds hanging in contention until the season wore them out. But then Cincinnati won 15 of 22 games after the break.
"It wasn't one moment. It was a series of moments when people thought we were going to crack and we didn't," said Reds outfielder Jonny Gomes. "We went on the road in Seattle, [and] got swept. Those games in Philly were rough. Getting beat by the Cardinals at home was embarrassing, but then we won seven straight. Every time there was a fork in the road, we took the right turn."
Even in September, the Reds closed unimpressively. Against rivals and contenders (St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Diego, Colorado, San Francisco and Atlanta), the Reds were 17-33 on the season. Outside of Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman, the Reds don't expect to scare anyone -- and yet Cincinnati won more series than any team in baseball.
"I think we did sneak up on a lot of people, especially after St. Louis," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said, referring to the Aug. 9-11 disaster, when the Cardinals swept the Reds at home. "This is a resilient team. The more we were tested, the more we came back and won. I kind of believed in July, after the All-Star break."
The Reds finished September 12-15, adding suspense to a division race that watched the defending division champion Cardinals finish August and September with a 25-30 record. Still, on the day Baker prayed for his team, Jay Bruce won the division with a first-pitch home run in the bottom of the ninth later that night.
"Now that's how you make the playoffs!" Baker cried during the clubhouse celebration.
That night, awash in victory, the manager drove to a local restaurant, where he was feted as the savior of what had been a moribund franchise. In stopped traffic, revelers noticed the manager and Baker bathed in the evening with the fans -- hugs, handshakes, drinks and pictures with one caveat: That none ever showed up on Facebook.
'A heck of a life'
Away from the champagne spray, the kaleidoscope of influences is apparent on the walls of Baker's office: A commissioned painting of the Native American warrior Tecumseh, photographs of Miles Davis, Henry Aaron, Junior Gilliam and and two of Jackie Robinson. On the far wall is a misty and dreamy drawing of guitar legends: Duane Allmann, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Closer to his desk is a photograph from the film "Easy Rider."
The prodigy is long gone and the adult is left. One of his larger paintings is of a healing center in Kauai, Hawaii, from his cancer recovery. The photograph resembles a Mayan temple with beams of rainbows darting through the windows of the shelter.
"That one," he says, "told me everything was going to be all right."
"It changes your outlook. And I want to win the World Series. I hate the question of 'how much longer do I want to do this?' Why would I sell myself short? Joe Torre managed much longer than I. So has Bobby Cox. This is a heck of a life. I've never stopped aspiring, never stopped learning to do this job better. I take pride in being prepared. I take pride in having faith, in myself and in my players. I'm happy.
"Since cancer and my dad, all that other stuff, I try to leave it. This is a life much more fulfilling," Dusty Baker says. "The stars are brighter. And the birds sing louder. I hear them more now than ever."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.