Spring Training brings new reality for Baker
Longtime manager reluctantly on sidelines as baseball begins anew
Pitchers and catchers have checked in for Spring Training. The remaining position players will be arriving at the spring camps in Arizona and Florida this week. Everybody is ready to get back to work.
Well, most everybody.
Dusty Baker isn't, although it was not his choice.
Baker is at home in Sacramento. For just the third time since 1967, when he was a senior in high school, Baker won't be a Spring Training participant.
"Right now, it's not a big deal," said Baker. "It's been like any other offseason, except I haven't packed yet."
He knows the emotions will change, though.
"The season hasn't started yet," Baker said. "We'll see how things are in the next month or so. But right now, it hasn't hit me yet."
It's not like Baker is oblivious to his situation. He is a baseball lifer, and right now he's not part of the game. He's been through it before, spending a year outside the game after he retired as a player following the 1986 season, and then, in 2007, when he spent a year working for ESPN between managerial jobs with the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati.
Baker would like to think he will get another managerial opportunity, which is why when the Reds initially suggested he announce his retirement, Baker declined, resulting in him being dismissed.
"I'm not ready for that," he said.
While Baker isn't ready to make the decision himself, others might decide for him. He made inquiries about jobs that opened during the offseason in Washington, Seattle and Detroit, but never got a return call, "not even a 'No thank you,'" he said.
Baker, however, is a positive guy, and he looks at the bright side.
"Maybe the break is good for me," he said. "Maybe it's good to step back for a bit. Maybe it will prolong my life by 10 years. I'll take that."
The man is 16th on the all-time managerial wins list with 1,671 over a 20-year managerial career. His .526 winning percentage might rank 77th, but he is right ahead of Hall of Fame managers such as Tommy Lasorda, Bill McKechnie, Clark Griffith and Dick Williams.
But there is a health question.
Baker, who turns 65 on June 15, was hospitalized in September 2012 with an irregular heartbeat and a mini stroke. Even though he rejoined the Reds for the postseason that year and managed them again in 2013, that health incident remains a cloud over Baker. The Reds did tailor his contract for last season in a way that would have reduced his salary if he missed time with the heart problem.
There was never a moment of concern until the '13 campaign ended. Then the Reds decided to not re-hire hitting coach Brook Jacoby, and Baker lobbied for his return. Turned out neither Jacoby nor Baker is back.
Baker's resume is impressive, and includes back-to-back 90-win seasons and postseason appearances both times in 2012-13, although the latter season ended with a loss to Pittsburgh in the National League Wild Card Game. That came a year after a five-game loss to San Francisco in the '12 NL Division Series, in which the Reds won the first two games at AT&T Park before dropping three in a row.
Baker took his team to the postseason in seven of his 20 years as a manager, winning five division titles and claiming two Wild Card spots. In his first managerial season, 1993, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games but finished second to Atlanta in the NL West, which many feel was the final impetus for baseball to add an additional playoff team. Those Giants joined the 1980 Baltimore Orioles as the only teams to win 100 games and not advance to the postseason since the advent of divisional play in 1969.
But Baker also knows there are times in life where changes are made because, well, changes are made.
"It might have been time to leave Cincinnati," Baker said in a very matter-of-fact way. "We reach those points at different times in life. ... It was a point where nothing I did was right."
He's been there before.
Baker managed the Giants for 10 years, taking them to the postseason four times. Yet he wasn't brought back in 2003, even though he had led San Francisco to only its second World Series berth in 42 seasons in 2002. He managed the Cubs to the NL Central title in 2003, but saw them eliminated by the Marlins in a seven-game NL Championship Series remembered for Steve Bartman. And in his six years with the Reds, they made three postseason appearances.
Baker is looking for one more shot, but at times he sounds like he wonders if he doesn't fit into the new-breed executives because of his age. He is, after all, a strong personality, and did grow up in a different era of baseball, before the term "sabermetrics" became a catchword in baseball.
"That's one thing I've heard, 'I'm not into sabermetrics,'" he said. "I was using statistical analysis 20 years ago. We had other names for it, like matchups, but they've always been a part of the game."
And it seems like Baker has always been a part of the game, too.
Right now, however, he's missing.