NL Central may be in for a Reds scare
Mike Nadel / CHICAGO SPORTS
Warning to the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and other NL Central teams: Underestimate Dusty Baker and his Cincinnati Reds at your own peril.
Dwell not on the way his four-year Cubs run ended, when, as he now says: "I got my butt kicked every day." Instead, recall Baker's accomplishments in his first Chicago season.
Those '03 Cubs didn't know how good they were until Dusty made them believe. They repeatedly overcame adversity, improved dramatically as the summer progressed and produced the franchise's first postseason-series victory in nearly a century.
Until they were Bartmanned, 2003 was a magical year thanks to the best motivational job I've witnessed by a big-league manager. (Baker had pulled off a similar feat a decade earlier in his debut San Francisco season, winning 103 games just one year after the Giants had gone 70-92.)
Now recharged after a year at ESPN and wiser from his Cubs experience, 58-year-old Baker is ready to inject life into a Cincinnati franchise that hasn't reached the playoffs in 13 years.
"It's exciting," Reds star Ken Griffey said. "He's a players' manager, but he's also a take-charge guy. I've already been to the principal's office once. The man's a winner."
Folks at Wrigley Field said much the same until it all went bad during the final week of the 2004 season, when it somehow was Baker's fault Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Greg Maddux and LaTroy Hawkins went into the tank. Then came 2005 and serious injuries to Nomar Garciaparra, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
Finally, there was the disaster of '06, when poor personnel moves and a flood of ailments condemned the Cubs to a season from hell. Jim Hendry should have been humane and fired Dusty at midseason. Instead, the GM let his manager twist in the wind.
"Even though I heard the jeers, I said, 'Hey, man, give me one more year and I'll set things right,'" Baker said. "But somebody had to be the scapegoat. I was the easy guy."
Baker certainly was an easy target. Quirks that once seemed amusing - toothpicks, sweatbands, calling everybody "dude," folksy sayings and incessant references to former teammate Hank Aaron - came to annoy Cubs fans. He was criticized (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not) for letting the inmates run the asylum, preferring mediocre veterans to promising kids and riding his starting pitchers too hard.
Still, for all the praise his successor has received, Lou Piniella has yet to match Dusty's achievements in Chicago. And the Cubs have given Piniella significantly more financial support.
"I just think, hey, if the talent was that good and I was that bad, why did they have to spend so much money for Lou?" Baker said, chuckling. "People called me after I got this job and said, 'Congratulations for being the first fired Cubs manager to get hired by someone else' (in 21 years). I guess if you don't perform a miracle, you're no good."
The 2003 Cubs were borderline miraculous. They began the year mostly with unproven youngsters and retreads. Their big kahuna, Sammy Sosa, suffered through several slumps and was suspended for corking his bat. A basepath collision cost Prior four starts. Corey Patterson, the team's first-half MVP, blew out his knee July 6 and was done for the season.
Baker's positive energy held the club together until wounds were healed and reinforcements were added. Fans were in love; "In Dusty We Trusty" t-shirts were all the rage.
"He brought a new attitude and willed us to victory," said Cincinnati backup catcher Paul Bako, a member of the '03 Cubs. "He's come here with the same attitude for the Reds. He doesn't have to beg for respect or threaten for it. He's in charge, but he's still great at communicating with players.
"A few guys said, 'No way can he be the same Dusty the whole year.' And I said, 'Yes, he's just being himself. That's Dusty.' The guys will enjoy playing for him and they'll respond.
"Look around this room. We have good ballplayers. We can win the division."
In addition to Griffey, the Reds feature Brandon Phillips, Adam Dunn, Aaron Harang and Francisco Cordero. They also have several good role players, a few live arms and Baseball America's highest-rated prospect, outfielder Jay Bruce.
The Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers are favored in the NL Central. But, Baker said, "I really like my team. Don't count us out."
A cancer survivor and a former All-Star who had firsthand experience with MLB's racial and labor issues, Baker can put baseball in perspective.
"One thing I've learned about life and problems: They'll always be there, so it's about how you handle them," he said. "Every time you go through a serious situation, it's the worst situation ... until the next worst situation.
"I got beat up pretty good in Chicago, but I'm off the canvas. It's all good, dude. I'm back in the game, and I'm back to win."
Only a fool who ignores Dusty Baker's history would dismiss his claim with the wave of a hand.