Reds' Baker keeps coming back to chase elusive World Series ring
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- At the age of 61, and back for his 18th try at managing a World Series winner, Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker, a guy who in the first place didn't want anything to do with managing, has become one of the game's great treasures, even more so now that colleagues Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Cito Gaston retired after last season. Baker blends old-school baseball values with a hipster's love of what's current, constantly engaging his young Reds players in conversations about music, fashion, cars, travel and just about anything else.
"Burt! Look at this!" he called out to Jared Burton as the reliever walked past his spring training office recently. Baker showed him a souvenir from Cuba, an olive military-style painter's cap that Baker starched and hung from a hanger to achieve the ideal shape. Burton was impressed. He was wearing a painter's cap himself.
Baker, one of the guys, has kept the youthful outlook and sensibilities of a player, so it does seem jarring that he is now a baseball elder with a legacy -- a legacy he burns to change.
Baker, along with Hall of Famer Al Lopez, is in the argument for the most successful manager in baseball history never to have won the World Series, at least since they started playing the Fall Classic back in 1903.
"Hey, my time is coming," he said. " I always believe that -- and more than one."
With six more wins, giving him 1,411 victories, Baker will pass Jimmy Dykes and Lopez into second place for the most career wins by a manager in the World Series era without ever winning the World Series. The only manager who won more games without a ring is the all-time Captain Ahab of managers, Gene Mauch.
Is Baker the new Gene Mauch? Mauch won 1,902 games without a title. But Mauch also lost more games than he won and infamously presided over blown pennant races or postseason series in 1964, 1982, 1985 and 1986. Baker has a career winning percentage of .512 -- separating himself from Mauch.
"Some of it has to do with having great teams," Baker said about getting a ring. "Some of it has to do with getting breaks. Some of it has to do with you being in the right place at the right time.
"Yeah, I need to get off that list. Seriously. But you look how many great ones have only one. I look at Ron Gardenhire. Every year they get in. That's worse. Bobby Cox. He has one -- out of . Man, I don't know. That would drive me more crazy than this."
Gardenhire, the Minnesota manager, holds the all-time record for most playoff appearances without a World Series title: six. (Baker has been in the playoffs five times.) Gardenhire won his first playoff series, but has lost six straight while his Twins have gone 3-19 in those postseason games. Cox won the World Series once in his record 16 postseason appearances, the last five resulting in first-round knockouts.
Baker's resume, but for that one gaping hole, is impressive. He is a three-time manager of the year who has won 90 or more games six times, as many as Hall of Famer Whitey Herzog. In 2003-04, Baker accomplished something none of the other 40 Cubs managers in the past 71 years has done: He won at least 88 games in back-to-back years with the Cubs. You have to go back to Joe McCarthy in 1928-29 to find a Cubs manager with consecutive years like that.
Yet the disappointments stand out. As Baker said, "The one thing I can't figure out is how come the highs of the game don't equal the lows. The highs you expect. And the losses hurt."
In 1993, his first year as San Francisco manager and the last season without the wild card, Baker won 103 games with the Giants and didn't make the playoffs. Worse, there was Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, when his Giants led the Angels 5-0 and were just eight outs from the title, only to be outscored 10-1 after that while losing Games 6 and 7. Baker was oh so close to bringing all the joy and goodwill that came last year to San Francisco with the Giants' first world championship in that city.
And, worse still, there was Chicago. Baker was the man in the dugout when Wrigleyville flipped from a fun-loving, carefree baseball town to one with an edge -- the birth of expectations, something that had not been part of Cubs code in a century. His four years there ended bitterly.
"I was at ESPN, " he said after his ouster from Chicago. "It was cool. [But] I missed the thrill of competition.
"I had to come back. And I had to come back to this division for a couple of reasons."
I asked him if it was because of the Cubs that he had to come back to the NL Central.
"That really hurt," he said. "Deep -- as deep as anything in my life."
You had a good thing there, I told him.
"Initially," he said. "But we didn't reload. And at the end it was my fault. It got real ugly. Racial. Calls, letters . . . it was ugly. And I've been in some situations. I was the only black dude in my high school."
In his first year in Chicago, and just 12 months after the brutal World Series Game 6 defeat, Baker brought the Cubs to within five outs of the World Series. It was a poor offensive team, one with almost no lefthanded pop and one that finished ninth in runs and 13th in walks and needed midseason trade help from the Pirates (Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez and Randall Simon). The Cubs did have excellent young power pitching. The 2003 Cubs led the league in strikeouts. Nobody older than 30 started a game for them all year: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, Matt Clement, Shawn Estes, Juan Cruz and Sergio Mitre.
Mauch-like, the Cubs collapsed against Florida in the NLCS. Prior and Wood both had three-run leads in potential clinchers and lost, including the infamous Steve Bartman Game in Game 6 when a foul ball touched by a fan, like Mrs. O'Leary's cow, started a conflagration of trouble.
The 2004 Cubs actually won more games, 89, than the 2003 team, but Prior and Wood began to break down, and much of the frustration was directed at Baker for how he used them in 2003. When the Cubs sank to 83 losses in 2005 and then to 96 losses in 2006, Baker was gone.
When the Reds hired him to manage for 2008, they wanted to give him a four-year deal.
"They offered me four years and I wanted three," Baker said. "I signed in Chicago a year too long. I had always had two-year deals. [The Cubs] insisted on four. They helped me and I helped them. They helped secure my family, too. It wasn't all negative. But I did want to be the first one to win it all there. And then I wanted to be the first one to win back-to-back."
The Reds have improved every year under Baker, from 72 wins to 74 to 78 and last year to 91 and the NL Central title -- before they were rudely dismissed by Philadelphia in the NLDS.
"We were banged up, too," Baker said. "And they were better than us. The only way you're going to beat the Phillies is to outpitch them. Like the Giants did. And [the Giants] outpitched Texas.
"[Phillies manager] Charlie Manuel said our team reminded him of when they got swept by the Rockies that one year [in 2007] . . . The hardest thing about winning is winning the first time. After that winning breeds winning. It's easier to have guys become less selfish."
The 2011 Reds are loaded with talented young players who only are beginning to see their best years, such as first baseman Joey Votto, outfielders Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs, and pitchers Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman. The story of their success, especially if they can return to the postseason, will be told by whether they have the starting pitching to outpitch elite teams such as the Phillies and Giants.
"I'm back with a good team," Baker said. "I don't know if we're going to win it all, but we're going to be somewhere near the top -- for a while."
And so Baker gives it an 18th try, which is 18 more than he expected. Back in 1987, Baker had no intention of coaching or managing after retiring from a playing career with 1,981 hits and one World Series title with the 1981 Dodgers. He took a trip to Lake Arrowhead, Calif., with his life in disarray. His marriage and his investments were failing. Said Baker, "I told my dad I was going up there to pray. Because I really didn't want to coach or manage or nothing. I didn't know where to go with my life at the time."
Baker was in line to check into the hotel when a man tapped him on the shoulder. It was Bob Lurie, the owner of the Giants.
"You need to come and join us," Lurie said.
What were the odds that Baker and the owner of the Giants would be in the same line at a hotel in Lake Arrowhead? Baker called his father.
"What do you think? Is it a sign?"
"Son, if that ain't a sign you just don't want to see it."
Baker took a job as the Giants' first base coach. Five years later he was managing the team and was named Manager of the Year in his first crack at the job. Last October, he agreed to a contract with the Reds for his 18th and 19th seasons as manager. There is no sign of an end in sight, no loss of energy, no complaining about the "modern player" and no yearning for "the old days." The father of a 12-year-old son plans to keep at it with his enthusiasm intact, to still be one of the guys.
"Yeah," he said. "We'll see. I've got some new aspirations now. I plan on being at it for a while. Reggie Smith told me one time, 'Don't think about retirement until the end because if you do you're already retired in your own mind.'
"So the day may come one day where you just say, 'See you later.' No fanfare, no tour around the country, no nothing. Just, 'Check you later.' First thing I'm doing is taking my son to Alaska."
Before Alaska, though, what remains is the matter of the World Series. Baker will keep chasing it, piling up wins in pursuit of it like nobody else but Mauch. Among active managers, Buck Showalter (916) and Gardenhire (803) are far behind Baker on the list of those with the most wins without winning the big one. If Baker had won Game 6 of the 2002 World Series or maybe if those 2003 Cubs had held on to beat Florida and then shut down the Yankees in the World Series, he might not be in the Reds dugout right now. He might be in Alaska.
"If I had won before, I don't know if I would be here or not. Honestly," he said. "There were times when I was like, 'I don't need this. I don't need people on my ass all the time, about Prior, Wood or some [stuff] all the time.'"
Baker, though, also remembers something else his dad told him that day at Lake Arrowhead when Lurie happened to walk into his life.
Said Baker, "My dad said, 'Son, the Lord wouldn't let you come in contact with Hank Aaron and Jim Gilliam and Preston Gomez and all the greats you played with to let you take that knowledge and take it and run to the woods with you. It's not yours to possess. It's yours to share.' And that's why I'm still here."