Stress of managing can affect anyone, even cool Dusty Baker
The irony is as obvious as the slender stalks of Australian wood he chews during games:
Dusty Baker shouldn't be having health problems that could be related to the stress of managing.
Dusty Baker is cool.
There could be another Major League manager who counts Van Morrison among his acquaintances. Maybe Charlie Manuel got a couple tickets to the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival for a birthday present, as Baker did on his 18th. Does Jim Leyland have a picture of the late, great blues guitarist John Lee Hooker on a wall in his office? It's possible.
The 63-year-old Baker grows wine grapes, believes in holistic healing and sometimes plays Tupac on his iPod. That doesn't make him immune to having a small stroke as he's leaving the hospital, two days after he was admitted for an irregular heartbeat. It's just doesn't fit the profile.
As Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke noted Tuesday, "He's been (managing) a long time. He's got the temperament for it. Players have fun playing for him. It's certainly not as stressful (for Baker) as for some other people.''
No one is saying for certain that the angst of managing caused Baker to be admitted last Wednesday to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Or that stress was a reason for the stroke, which happened last Friday, literally as Baker was being released. In fact, doctors say atrial fibrillation and strokes are often ugly partners.
Baker himself hasn't commented. He met with Reds brass and his doctors Tuesday at Great American Ball Park, spoke briefly with his players, then departed. He said in a statement he'd like to be back with the team in St. Louis next week.
It might have nothing to do with the job. It probably does, though. You'd have to think it does. Baker is cool, but cool has its limits. And heading into the crucible of October baseball, you have to be a little concerned for the manager of the Cincinnati Reds.
The job is a grind. It might be the biggest grind in all of pro sports. Unlike football or basketball, games happen daily. No time to regroup, rethink, redo. Football is six classes a week, and an exam. Baseball is six exams a week, and one class. "You have to answer to things every day,'' Roenicke said.
Managers are taught to think long term. The Big 162, as Reds third baseman Scott Rolen calls it. Fans and media react short term. That leads to daily and public whys and what-ifs most of us aren't bothered with. Who knows how we'd handle it if we were?
I'm a Pirates fan and my Buccos have lived a horror show the past six weeks. I felt every loss in my spleen. What about Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, ringmaster for the disaster? He can't just turn off the car radio, take a Tums and go to bed. He has to come back and be tortured tomorrow. And the next day.
What about Dusty Baker?
Even as the Reds have led the NL Central much of the year, fans and media have been lukewarm. Instead of enjoying a surprisingly successful Reds summer, they've carped about why Drew Stubbs is still leading off. Baker has stopped answering lineup questions' and instead invokes a Van Morrison song title: "Why must I always explain?''
Baker is sensitive to criticism, but he internalizes it. Lou Piniella might respond to a blown save by tossing a table. Baker worries about the closer's psyche. In his five seasons in Cincinnati, I've never heard Baker rip a player.
By strategy standards, this has not been a trying year for the Reds or their manager. None of the Reds' five starting pitchers has missed a start. Since April, there has been only one crucial injury, to Joey Votto. Baker has candidates for comeback player of the year (Ryan Ludwick) and rookie of the year (Todd Frazier). He has two Cy Young possibilities, Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman. Simply having the nearly unhittable presence of Chapman takes the blood pressure down a notch.
Managing personalities and egos has always been Baker's strength. He has done a fine job of that this season as the Reds' 33-16 record without Votto attests. They've played hard, loose and confidently for him this year. Baker's tone-setting has been superb.
It must have taken its toll, though.
The candles burn on his desk. Incense still flavors the air in his office. He doesn't seem consumed with his job. Maybe it can't be helped. Stress is implied in the contract, the same way pain is in the NFL.
"Any time you're where the buck stops, it's stressful,'' said Reds interim manager, Chris Speier. "I don't even like to use the word stress. It's a fun job. It's important. It's challenging. But you're dealing with a lot of personalities, and you're doing it every single day. And there's always another game.''
Sometimes, that's good. Stress is good, too, sometimes. It gets us to respond.
It's a warning as well. For Dusty Baker, the warning arrived in the form of a trip to the hospital, and an unexpected extended stay. He'll be back in the dugout, if not next week then certainly by Game 1 of the NLDS. He'll listen to his heart then, more than he does already.