Baker bashers forget the facts
In the wake of the news
October 21, 2007
I can't tell you how many people came up to me last week and made light of the Reds' hiring of Dusty Baker. Five? Ten? I lost track after the second joke about the distinct possibility the Cubs would go 15-0 against Cincinnati next season.
The glee that followed the announcement was the kind normally reserved for when the movie villain gets it but good in the end.
A Cubs fan on the FireDustyBaker.com Web site said the name now should be changed to Don'tFireDustyBaker.com. Nicely played.
I don't recall one person saying the Reds made a good move.
So I'll say it: The Reds made a good move. You know, if winning's your thing.
It's interesting how, aside from his odd decision to pull Carlos Zambrano after 85 pitches in Game 1 of the Arizona playoff series, Lou Piniella is regarded as something of a baseball genius for getting 85 victories out of a franchise that won 66 games the season before under Baker.
Never mind that many believed the Cubs had the most talent, by far, in the National League Central this year.
Never mind that the Cubs spent gobs of money on players for Piniella.
Or, for that matter, that the Cubs won 88 and 89 games in Baker's first two seasons at Wrigley Field.
Piniella is a savant!
And Baker, who got his 2003 club closer to the World Series than any Cubs team in almost 60 years, is perceived as a loser, a punch line, chump change.
You still can hear the moaning long after his departure.
Why, why, why didn't he take Mark Prior out of Game 6 when the Cubs were five outs from going to the World Series? I don't know. Perhaps it was because Prior was throwing a three-hit shutout going into the eighth inning, and he was the Cubs' best pitcher. Perhaps it was because setup man Kyle Farnsworth didn't inspire a whole lot of confidence and Baker liked his chances with a pitcher who had gone 18-6 with a 2.43 earned-run average in the regular season.
Why, oh, why didn't he have starter Carlos Zambrano warming up in the bullpen when the sky fell in that game? Perhaps it was because the sky fell at warp speed. If you were in the ballpark that night, you know how quickly things fell apart. And if you're a follower of this sad franchise, you know the sense of inevitability that settled in at Wrigley Field with Moises Alou's glove-throwing incident. It was over before it was over.
It has become gospel that Baker ruined Prior and Kerry Wood. Wood was injuries, plural, waiting to happen, and nothing before or since Baker's arrival can change that simple truth. Prior's situation is a bit more complex. The piling on of Baker began when Prior sat out the first two months of the 2004 season … with Achilles' tendinitis.
That's not to say Baker was innocent of overpitching Prior and causing chronic arm problems. It's to say I don't know. Nobody knows.
One study that analyzed pitchers from 2000 to 2006 showed that Baker's starters averaged 3.68 pitches per start more than they would have been expected to throw under certain conditions. This was based on innings, hits, strikeouts, walks, the particular season, the particular league and a lot of stuff I never understood in math class.
In other words, Baker was not a pitcher killer.
The beginnings of Prior's shoulder injury could have come at Southern California, in the minors or in the big leagues under Baker. Again, nobody knows. But that hasn't stopped fans and media members, many of them newly minted experts in biomechanics and kinesiology, from blaming Baker for Prior's undoing.
That the Cubs fell apart in 2006 was more an indictment of general manager Jim Hendry than it was Baker. Even though Wood and Prior had proved to be medically unreliable, the Cubs didn't respond by signing or trading for other starters. They sat still.
History is a tricky business. You might have noticed that the past tends to fade. Things you thought happened didn't, and things that did happen are forgotten. Some themes emerge, and all the elbow grease in the world can't make them go away. In Chicago, Baker's theme is one of abject failure.
It might come as a surprise to you that in 13 seasons as a manager, he went to the playoffs four times and finished second in his division six other times.
He was not guiltless here. He put too much faith in veterans who didn't deserve faith. Loyalty is one thing; loyalty to a LaTroy Hawkins is insanity.
He let Sammy Sosa be Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou be Moises Alou and Kent Mercker be Kent Mercker. Enabling never looked quite so ugly.
When the Cubs finally did everyone a favor by letting those players walk, they forgot to bring in honest-to-goodness major-league talent as replacements. And when Derrek Lee went down with a broken wrist in 2006 and Todd Walker had to play first base, well, you wonder what Piniella could have done with that.
We need heroes and we need baddies. That's life. Baker has taken on epic evil proportions in this town. The descent from good to evil has been dizzying.
Now he will run a team that hits well. It's a team with a decent mix of veterans and young players. Oh, that's right. The rap is that Baker doesn't like young players. Wait, didn't second-year pro Matt Murton hit .297 as a regular in 2006? You remember Murton, don't you? Whatever became of him?
Baker gets a chance to start over in Cincinnati, a town with people who are nervous after reading some of the fiction about their new manager.
How about giving him a chance, Reds fans? You might even win a few games from those mighty, mighty Cubs.