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FRANCISCO -- The golf cart wheeled him, slowly, through the lower bowl of AT&T Park, out toward the Northern California night, where a Filipino dinner, followed by the typically short sleep that accompanies postseason play, awaited him.Each San Francisco Giants employee that Dusty Baker passed extended a hand, a hello, a Halleluiah."Thank the Lord!" one woman said, clutching Baker's hand. "I was so worried about you!"Baker is lighter in body -- more than 20 pounds shed over the course of his medical ordeal, followed by the determined diet prescribed by his daughter. But he's not frail -- in body, in mind or in soul. He's simply recognizing the value, at this stage, of energy preservation.
"There's a difference," Baker had reminded us shortly before the cart commute, "between saving it and not having it."Baker has it, no doubt. But if he needed an extra little jolt to the system, this National League Division Series -- and this place in particular -- is just what the doctor ordered.This, after all, was the Bay Area-bred Baker's home -- is Baker's home. This is where he got his first shot as a skipper, and this is where he endured the first, and worst, of his many managerial heartbreaks -- the 2002 World Series, which went seven and went to the Angels.So to be here now, with a Reds team seemingly sturdy enough to go the distance, is an appropriate first step if Baker is to ascend to that elusive summit. Because whether he'll admit it or not, the 63-year-old has some ghosts to exorcise."I don't know for sure, because I haven't asked him about it, but I know the competitor Dusty is," said Kenny Lofton, a member of that '02 team, who remains close to Baker. "I know how Dusty is. And this is an opportunity to get 'em back, just to show he can still manage and be one of the top managers in the game."It would be cliché to say that Baker's competitive fire got him through those scary moments at Northwestern Memorial last month. An irregular heartbeat landed him in a hospital bed, and a slight stroke at checkout wheeled him right back. Baker, though, will tell you he was never scared."If you're in the place where it happens, in a hospital, you might as well end up in a hospital, right?" he said. "I mean, shoot, if things aren't right in your life, and all of a sudden, boom, I'm in a hospital, if they can't take care of me, then who can take care of me, other than God?"God's gotten him this far. He's gotten him through prostate cancer and tenuous contractual statuses (he's in the middle of one of those now, in fact) and crushing defeats. He'll get him through this October, one way or another. That's what Baker will tell you, and that's what he tells the men who make up his roster.Those men trust him, back him, love him."He believes that everything happens for a reason," Jay Bruce said. "He's a believer. And we fall right in line with that, too."There were many anxious moments over the course of the 11 games without Dusty in the dugout when it was hard to believe. Because until he was there in substance and not just in spirit, nobody could feel completely comfortable. And so the NL Central championship celebration was just a little more muted without Baker there to soak in the champagne bath.No one was more shaken than second baseman Brandon Phillips, who looks at Dusty as a de facto daddy, and not just because he happens to resemble his actual father."I love him to death," Phillips said. "I look at my dad, and I look at [Dusty], and it's like, 'Oh my God, I don't know who my real daddy is.'"Daddy came home, and he looked like a new man. Even his trademark toothpick seemed thinner. "He looks like he was on the Slim Fast commercials," Phillips joked. "Hydroxycut or something."Give credit there to Natosha, Baker's 33-year-old daughter, who has him consuming couscous and whole-grain pastas. Morning oatmeal is an order. And something's sticking, because when Baker went out for dinner with his "homeboys," as he put it, on Thursday night, it wasn't steak and potatoes. It was tomato soup, tomato salad and fish."I love my daughter," Baker said. "She wants her dad to live a long time, and I do, too."That's the focus for Baker right now. The season outcome is secondary. Only a fool would prioritize the ball over the body. And given everything he went through just a couple of weeks ago, there is -- and ought to be -- careful monitoring of Baker's workload and stress level. San Francisco is, undoubtedly, a stressful draw, from a baseball standpoint. All that earning the second seed in the NL bought the Reds was a road date in a pitcher's park against a guy who pitched a perfect game a few months back. Heck, the last time Baker's club faced a member of the perfecto club in Game 1 of a Division Series, they were no-hit by Roy Halladay, so how's that for postseason precedent? For Baker, though, San Francisco is still good for the soul. He is the enemy between the lines, sure, but he is beloved all the same. Fans still have the memory of his then-3-year-old son, Darren, straying too far toward home plate, only to be scooped up and saved by J.T. Snow. They know that these are Baker's roots and his wife's roots. And though they can't root for him, they do respect him, and the feeling is forever mutual."I just like the people here," he said. "I like the attitude. I like people doing their own thing but basically not hurtin' anybody."This, too, can be viewed as Baker's managerial mind-set. He gets the most out of his men because he treats them like men, not hired hands.
Lofton tells the story of third baseman David Bell from that '02 team. Baker found out Bell loved catfish.
"We go on the road," Lofton recalled, "and there's arrangements for a catfish dinner in his locker that Dusty got for him. That's the kind of man Dusty is."And so the man has an effect on people -- on those who play for him, and on those who know him from another time and place.So in the Reds' clubhouse and in the interior of AT&T Park, the sight of Baker back at work, at this pivotal point in the baseball calendar and in the place he calls home, elicited one response:Halleluiah.