Commentary

Baker excited to be back calling the shots again

Originally Published: February 16, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The new manager of the Cincinnati Reds is never going to be confused with John McNamara. Or Jack McKeon. Or even Sparky Anderson, for that matter.

We say this for many, many reasons. But we say it primarily because the new manager of the Reds -- a former ESPN employee you might have heard of, a guy by the name of Dusty Baker -- is a man who uses expressions like this:

"What's up, Big Daddy?"

It's hard to think of any set of circumstances that ever would have caused, say, Vern Rapp to utter those words. Or Dave Miley. Or, most certainly, Russ Nixon.

But those words spilled out of Baker's mouth Saturday as routinely as "one day at a time" spills out of the mouths of most managers. Those words were just Baker's way of saying hello to his new players. No more. No less. Just hello -- in Dusty-ese.

"That," laughed his new first baseman, Scott Hatteberg, "is why there's only one of him."

Yeah, there's only one Dusty Baker, all right. But what the heck is he doing here? That's the question.

Yes, what the heck is this man doing managing in Cincinnati, Ohio -- a town located 2,000 miles from his home in Northern California, a town that ranks as America's 34th-largest media market, a town where the local baseball team hasn't had a winning season since McKeon exited the city limits eight years (and five managers) ago?

Fascinating question. One of the most fascinating questions of spring training 2008, actually. But for Baker, it's an easy answer.

"Hey," he said Saturday, the day his pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, "this is where I'm supposed to be."

Baker came to that conclusion in October, after much thought, reflection and conversation with people whose judgment he trusted. Men such as Joe Morgan. And former NBA coach Al Attles. And Cito Gaston. Baker even reached deep into his memory bank to recall a conversation he once had with the late, great Bill Walsh about Cincinnati.

The Reds wanted him. And after thinking about it, Baker realized he wanted them, too. Needed them. Needed them to complete the "unfinished business" in his 14-year managerial career.

[+] EnlargeDusty Baker
AP Photo/Al BehrmanDusty Baker takes over a Reds team that hasn't finished with a winning record since 2000.
"I need to satisfy what's inside me," Baker said Saturday, in that deep, almost evangelical tone that also can spill out of his mouth at any given moment, "which is a couple of championships. I can't go home losing. Anybody who knows me [knows] I don't take losing too kindly. I can't go home not winning again."

There's a whole lot of winning on Baker's résumé, too: Four playoff teams as a manager. Four more as a player. A .527 managerial winning percentage that includes eight straight winning seasons at one point. Three trips to the World Series as a player. One more (with the 2002 Giants) as a manager.

But we know how that 2002 World Series ended. No need to rummage through that attic. We also know how the 2003 National League Championship Series ended, after a 3-1 Cubs series lead somehow morphed into Steve Bartman's worst nightmare.

There might not be a manager in history who endured back-to-back Octobers any more painful than those two. But when Baker was asked Saturday whether he was driven by what happened those Octobers, he shook his head.

He has moved past that pain, he said, "just by thinking, studying, being thankful for life and thankful for what you have had, versus what you didn't get. Or what you haven't had yet. How long can you live in pain? You do that, that's not living. So just go forward. …

"You can't live in the past," Baker went on, at his philosopher-king best. "You've got to live today, be prepared for tomorrow and hopefully you learn if you ever get in that situation again. And sometimes, it wasn't meant to be, you know? And you realize everything isn't necessarily in your control, in your power, like you think it is."

He is 58 years old now. And he has learned those profound lessons of life and baseball -- lessons that have brought him to this time, this place, this franchise.

He was a popular, almost revered figure in San Francisco, his first managerial stop. But he was a controversial, often polarizing figure in Chicago, his most recent dugout address.

As the years wore on and the reality of what happened to the Cubbies in 2003 set in, life in Chicago turned into one big Dusty-bashing mess. The Bartman Collapse. The throbbing arms of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. The descent of the Cubs to those losingest-team-in-the-league depths of 2006. It became All Dusty's Fault. All of it. Sometimes with reason. Sometimes, however, because that was convenient, one-stop excuse shopping.

For a long time afterward, Baker spoke openly about the "wounds" that lingered from that experience. But by the time he arrived in spring training Saturday, he was ready to announce that those wounds had healed.

"The year off helped me," he said. "Helped me realize the game stops for nobody, No. 1. The game is like the clock. It doesn't stop. It stops for no one. The game goes on. You can't carry those wounds around."

He held up his right hand. Looked at it. Looked at his audience.

I need to satisfy what's inside me -- which is a couple of championships. I can't go home losing. Anybody who knows me [knows] I don't take losing too kindly. I can't go home not winning again.

--Dusty Baker

"I've got wounds on my hand, too, but they healed," he said. "I had operations everywhere, but they healed. I put vitamin E on them so they don't peel, so I don't even know I've got a scar. I don't put vitamin E on [those mental wounds]. Just thinking about love and forgiveness. Just asking The Divine to purify my heart."

That, too, is where ESPN came in. Baker's gig at ESPN gave him a year to chill, to let go, to just be normal. It gave him "reflecting time," he said.

"I reflected in Montana, fishing," he said. "Fishing in Canada. And turkey hunting with my son. And that's the hard part of this thing -- saying goodbye to my family, to my son, after being around so much."

But it's not family time anymore. And it's not reflecting time. It's baseball time. Baker is ready for that. And the Reds are ready for someone like him.

After seven straight losing seasons, they hired a man GM Wayne Krivsky says brings "credibility" to the franchise. And the Reds were searching for someone specifically like that.

"He's been a successful manager, manager of the year three times," Krivsky said. "He's got a very impressive résumé. I think players know that. And word of mouth -- guys that played for him. Word of those things gets around. I think our guys have heard what a great guy he was to play for. And I think that all adds up to credibility."

It was a mesmerizing sight to watch Baker tour his new locker room Saturday -- pumping hands, wrapping bear hugs, firing off those "What's up, Big Daddys."

"There's no way," chuckled one of those new troops, super-utility whiz Ryan Freel, "this guy can be this cool."

But Hatteberg, who played for Baker in the Arizona Fall League nearly 15 years ago, said that Baker persona is what makes him what he is.

"He seems to me almost like a player -- with a bigger office," Hatteberg said. "The way he does it, it's definitely not the norm. No other manager even comes close to that. So to pull it off, you've got to be a certain kind of person. But Dusty just has that natural presence that gives him that built-in respect."

"Whether you've got a week in or 20 years, he makes it a point to be personal with everybody," said Kent Mercker, who pitched for Baker in Chicago. "He gets to know you, gets to know your family. He'll say, 'How's your wife, Julie, doing?' It's not just a business relationship. I think he genuinely cares about everyone who's playing for him. And for anyone who knows the way he played, how hard he played, that's no surprise. I think in his mind, he's still a player. But he's in charge."

Because he still thinks like a player, though, Baker sees qualities in the men in his locker room that other managers sometimes miss. And here's the first significant example of that in Cincinnati:

Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey Jr.

Right Field
Cincinnati Reds

Profile

2007 Season Stats
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
144 30 93 78 .372 .277

Whereas other Reds managers have seemed wary of Ken Griffey Jr., Baker speaks openly of trying to tap Griffey as a "resource." Baker is a man who prides himself on being able to relate to, and motivate, his biggest stars. And he already has sensed that treating Griffey as someone special is a way to build an important connection.

"There's a lot there that people haven't tapped," Baker said. "You don't play this game for 20 years, and be in the big leagues at 19, if you don't know what you're doing or what you've done or what's going on. You may not necessarily say it, but there's a lot there.

"You know, I talked to Hank Aaron the other day. I guess he and Junior are on the board of the Boys & Girls Club. Hank said what a pleasure it was for him to be around Junior and his wife, and he could tell what kind of guy he was. Hank doesn't give compliments like that very often. So that meant a lot to me. He's met most of the superstars in the game, and this is the first time he's really raved about meeting one."

Heaping praise on Griffey won't, in and of itself, keep him healthy or make him play as though he were 24 years old again. But having a feel for when and how to deliver that praise is as big a part of managing as filling out any lineup card is. And once again Saturday, Baker reminded us that, whatever issues we might have had with how he ran any given baseball game, his feel for the human beings is as good as it gets.

So that is what he's doing here.

Because he still has that fire to relate and motivate. Because he still remembers the spectacular, passionate, red-shirted baseball town Cincinnati used to be once upon a time. And because fishing in Montana, and talking into a microphone, isn't what he was meant to do -- or be.

"This was something I needed to do," Baker said. "I had a great time at ESPN. I loved the time at home with my family. I just wasn't quite ready to do that forever. There are a few things that I still need to do."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com