Bitter? Baker says no
Dusty Baker says he asked the Cubs for a one-year deal to stay in Chicago. (AP)
By NICK PIETRUSZKIEWICZ – email@example.com
April 8, 2008
MILWAUKEE - Dusty Baker stood up from the chair in the visiting manager's office at Miller Park, tugged at his belt, tucked in that strange-looking gray Reds road uniform and paused at the door for a moment.
He needed to steel himself for this ride down memory lane, this trip to a time when he wore a white pinstriped uniform with a Cubs logo stitched on his chest, back to a place where, for the first time in his life, he failed.
A second or two passed, then he pulled on his hat, forced a smile onto his face and whispered "Let's go" to himself as he headed toward the dugout. He was ready, or so he thought.
Reliving those days in Chicago bothers Baker because he wants to live in this moment, leave the boos and the towel drills and the hate mail, and most of all the losing, behind.
What bothers him just as much, though, is that he asked for a chance to finish the job, offering to take a deal to which even managers with zero experience, much less ones with three division titles and three NL Manager of the Year awards to their name, would not agree.
"I even asked [for a one-year deal]," Baker revealed for the first time Tuesday. "No problem. Just give me one more shot."
The Cubs flatly refused. Told him it was time to go.
"I don't like leaving a job undone," said Baker, who returns to Wrigley six days from now for the first time since he was ushered out immediately after the 2006 season. "I don't like leaving at the bottom. I asked [Cubs general manager] Jim Hendry, told him I'd like to try it again even though people weren't for me at the end. Everybody else said, 'don't even think about it.' I said, 'yeah, man.' I wanted one more shot at it."
The Cubs felt that he wasn't the man for the job. But then, Baker wonders, who is?
"People said 'Congratulations, you're the first Cubs manager to get another job after [being] fired.' " Baker said. "Why is that? Is that some kind of burial ground for managers? Why? Something's not right there."
That toothy grin, the one that accessorized Baker's first two years with the Cubs as often as those double-wide wristbands but disappeared his final two seasons, suggests he's happy here, that he doesn't really think about his time in Chicago until someone else brings it up.
But when they do, the frustration, the anger, the hurt comes back even, though, time and time again, he says he's past it. He says he'd rather not talk about it. Of course, then he starts talking about it.
"I ask myself, 'If I was so bad, why'd you (the Cubs) have to go spend that money?' " he says, referring to all the huge contracts Hendry started handing out about 38 seconds after Baker was told he wasn't wanted back. "It ain't my money, they can do what they want to do. ... You give me the players [and] I have a good chance to win.
"I don't look back. I don't want to live in the past. I'd rather live my life and be left alone. They don't miss me. So go on your business. It's no big deal. Why should I look back? Everybody's sleeping good there. So why should I live back there?"
The smile is gone now as he leans back against a wall. Perhaps he should have taken another moment or two before he walked out of the manager's office.
"I'm not bitter," he insists. "I went through that already. What do I have to be bitter about? What gives someone the right to make you feel bitter?"
Let's change the subject, he says. Of course, he ends up going back to the subject.
"Why am I such big news?" he asks. "I sold a lot of newspapers over there and a lot of ads. Every time somebody gets hurt, I hear [it was my fault]. How come other managers don't hear it when somebody gets hurt? I must be more powerful than I thought."
Not much about him has changed. Baker still drops Hank Aaron's name every few minutes, and says "big-time" at least once every sentence. He still walks through the clubhouse and calls his players "dude" and "homie." He still chomps on toothpicks and passes out unsolicited advice.
"People who are in baseball ... as long as he has [been] aren't going to change," says Reds catcher Paul Bako, who played for Baker with the Cubs. "If they do, it usually means they aren't good at it. He's going to be who he is. He's not going to change for anyone. He's still Dusty."
The year away doing TV work didn't make Baker appreciate that seat on the bench more because he maintains that he always appreciated it. Still, being away from the Cubs, from a place that loved him and then loathed him, from an organization that coveted him and then disowned him, changes a person, even if they don't want to admit it.
"I'm the same 'O.G.' I used to be," he says.
But he's not, because everything around him has changed.
"It is different here," said Reds center fielder Corey Patterson, who, like Baker, was vilified in Chicago and has come to Cincinnati in search of a baseball cleansing. "I don't know why things are the way they are in some places. Here it's laid back and the fans are great - they don't overreact too much. They appreciate things here. You can feel it."
The fans will be waiting for Baker at Wrigley.
"I was booed there, why shouldn't I expect it when I go back?" Baker says. "I'm past getting my feelings hurt."
The boos might not hurt, but the memories - of losing, of not being given that shot to finish the job - those still haunt him, even if he refuses to say so.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz is the Northwest Herald's sports columnist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
. For more, read his blog, "No, Seriously," at NWHerald.com/noseriously.