CINCINNATI -- For 3,000 games over 19 seasons as a manager, Dusty Baker has endured many tests of mind and body over the years.
But the latest -- a minor stroke suffered on Friday -- could be one of the most difficult.
He is expected to make a full recovery, and the Reds are hoping to have the 63-year-old Baker back on the bench by Monday, when they start their final regular-season series at St. Louis. The Reds would very much like to have Baker lead them into the playoffs so they can try to get him his elusive first World Series ring as a manager.
"It definitely would be a little strange going into the battle of playoff time without your skipper that you've had for the last five years," veteran right-hander Bronson Arroyo said.
Baker originally left the club last week to be hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. His absence -- felt especially by the players when the Reds clinched the National League Central on Saturday -- might bring renewed appreciation for him around the game as a whole.
Baker was discharged from the hospital and returned to Cincinnati on Sunday. He visited Great American Ball Park that night and was back briefly on Tuesday afternoon to hold a meeting with his team in the clubhouse.
"[Baker] just wanted us to hear [about what happened] from his own mouth," center fielder Drew Stubbs said. "We're just all glad he is doing fine now. We're looking forward to getting him back."***
Even though the Reds have long had a sizeable lead over the Cardinals on the way to easily clinching another NL Central title, Baker has not slept easy very often this season. It's been one of the more challenging years of his career.
Wherever Baker may lay his head down for the night, he has habitually kept pen and paper on the table next to the bed.
"Every game has been tight, almost. I probably feel more tired this year [while] winning than any other year," Baker told MLB.com on Sept. 11, in what has turned out to be a rather prescient interview, given the effect this stressful season has had on his health.
Over the course of 30 minutes, Baker clearly had some things he wanted to get off his chest.
"When I go to sleep, a thought wakes me up for that day or the next day or maybe even a couple of days after that," said Baker. "[I have] late-night thoughts about mixing and matching and lineups."
Ah yes, lineups. The first Reds manager to win multiple division titles since Sparky Anderson, Baker has been dogged by critics and complaints all season, chiefly about his daily lineups, but also how he mixes up playing time -- not always by who has the hot hand, but who might be a better matchup vs. an opposing pitcher. Baker will show maximum patience by sticking with and defending players who are in deep slumps.
Not all of the complaints lack rationalization. The Reds have often had Zack Cozart and Drew Stubbs in either of the top two lineup spots this season. Both have on-base percentages below .300. In past losing seasons, Baker led off with Corey Patterson and Willy Taveras and got lousy results. On the other hand, the club spent a large chunk of this season with Joey Votto and Scott Rolen injured, and it forced Baker to use his best-equipped leadoff hitter -- Brandon Phillips -- in the third or fourth spot.
At the end of the day, managers are not evaluated by lineups, but by their record, and if they met or exceeded expectations. The Reds have won the NL Central two of the past three seasons.
"I think he catches a lot of flak for the wrong things," Votto said. "I'm not going to be specific, but it's unfair. There are too many things that are complicated behind the scenes. A lot of people want things to be cookie-cutter and fall in line. He's very good at reading people and reading situations and playing things by ear. The safe play is not always the play he makes. But with his experience and read of people, I think he's ahead of the curve of what most fans and critics know about managing."
As for the critics, including some of the fans that have still called for his ouster as manager, Baker hears them. But he does not listen.
| "The doubters, they don't know what I know. They haven't been taught what I've been taught. I don't blow my horn too much because they don't need to know what I know. The opposing manager doesn't need to know what I know. In the end, before it's over with, there's a good chance we're going to beat you."|
|-- Dusty Baker|
"Sometimes people tell me stuff. How are you going to know more than me?" said Baker, who is second behind Jim Leyland in career wins among active managers. "I've been in this game 43 years and I'm 63 years old. I've lived a whole bunch of stuff, seen a bunch of stuff and had a bunch of good teachers.
"The doubters, they don't know what I know. They haven't been taught what I've been taught. I don't blow my horn too much because they don't need to know what I know. The opposing manager doesn't need to know what I know. In the end, before it's over with, there's a good chance we're going to beat you."
Even so, Baker's kids have felt compelled to make sure their father isn't too burdened by his detractors. During an interview, Baker pulled out his smart phone and showed a text from his 32-year-old daughter Natosha. It was a meme of Winston Churchill with the following quotation:
"You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."
Darren Baker, 13, is frequently around the Reds when he's not in school and has grown fond of Cincinnati, like his father. He also has his father's constantly positive outlook.
"'Dad, there are a lot more people here that like you than don't like you,'" the skipper recalled hearing from his son. "'Those that don't like you, don't worry about them. You have to be like a duck and let the water roll off of your back.'"
"He is even giving me some of my own medicine," Baker added***
Baker got his first taste of the Major Leagues as a player as a 19-year-old in 1968 with the Atlanta Braves. He and his roommate Ralph Garr had the good fortune of being befriended by the great Hank Aaron, who is often referenced by name in Baker's anecdotes.
Aaron, who was once the game's all-time home run king with 755 homers, unquestionably opened doors for Baker that otherwise might not have been opened.
"As a very young player, I was personally around some of the best players in baseball," Baker said. "At any given time, they would always invite myself and Ralph Garr to come with them, along with Hank. I learned how to be a professional. They talked to me about different things."
Baker got a baseball education from many the era's greats, and some all-time ones, too. It would be the equivalent of a political science major taking a class from John F. Kennedy, or an architect sitting in on lectures from Frank Gehry.
In Pittsburgh, Baker hung out with Willie Stargell. In San Francisco, it was Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds. A trip to Chicago would mean time with Ernie Banks. In Cincinnati, he'd spend time at the houses of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose or Ken Griffey and talk hitting with Tony Perez.
"Everywhere we went, almost in every town, we'd talk baseball and talk about things, like some of the perils of the world, baseball and being a young African-American and dealing with the society and our system," Baker said.
It was also during this time that Baker learned about leadership in baseball, something he already had experience with in his outside life.
"A lot of it comes from being the oldest of five and being in charge, with both parents working," Baker said of his childhood. "I was captain of the teams I was on and a head guy in my platoon in the Marines. I was around some great guys."***
After his trade to the Dodgers before the 1976 season, Baker would get to know Sandy Koufax, Jim Gilliam, Joe Black and Roy Campenella. Just as importantly, Baker became teammates with the likes of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith -- all four of them hit at least 30 homers in the 1977 season, as the Dodgers became NL champions.
"He's always been that guy. He was focused," Cey said recently. "He always understood the challenges and responsibilities, day-to-day. He fit right in with our club when he came over from Atlanta."
It was in Los Angeles where Baker honed his skills as a communicator, and he could be counted on to unify a clubhouse. Factions came together, partly because Baker wanted it that way. Since he was usually the toughest guy in the room, his word was the law.
"When he first came to us, he didn't walk into a leadership role," Cey said. "But I think he worked himself into a leadership role. The best way to do that is how you have success on the field, how you manage it and how you manage yourself in the clubhouse. Certainly, Dusty was respected."
But before the success, that first season with the Dodgers in 1976 did not go well for Baker. The centerpiece of a six-player trade, Baker batted only .242 and produced four homers in 112 games. The following season was the first full year of legendary manager Tommy Lasorda's regime.
"[Lasorda] stuck his neck out for me after my first terrible year in L.A.," Baker said. "It taught me about patience and waiting and teaching and nurturing and helping a player achieve his maximum potential."
For those familiar with the hitting struggles Stubbs has had the past two seasons, take note.***
From the start of his first managerial job with the Giants (1993-2002), Baker earned the tag of being a "player's manager." Over the years, he would not only support his players when they were down, he would use his positive outlook on all matters to keep them up. If discipline was needed, it was handled privately and not in view of cameras or fans. Rarely was it ever made public.
"Most of all, [Baker] taught me how to be a professional," said former Giants third baseman Matt Williams, now the third-base coach for the D-backs. "If I could give him the ultimate compliment, that would be it.
"He's unique in that he's the manager, but he can talk to you as a teammate," Williams continued. "Not everybody can do that. So you know that when you play for him, he's got your back. He has to make tough decisions sometimes and call guys in the office and send them down or release them or chew them out. But he does it in such a way that it feels like it's coming from your older brother. You feel like he's one of you, which I think is really unique."
At any of Baker's managerial stops -- San Francisco, Chicago and Cincinnati -- it wasn't uncommon for the skipper to bring food from players' home spots. That might mean Cajun food for Cubs players Mike Fontenot and Ryan Theriot or native cuisine for his Latino players.
Baker was always keeping up with players and their families. Players' sons are generally welcomed to put on a uniform and be with the team in the clubhouse and dugouts. During summers when school is out, Darren Baker would also have a uniform on and help out coaches while they hit fungoes during batting practice.
"[Baker] cares, period," said Cubs bullpen coach Lester Strode, who was part of Baker's Chicago staff from 2003-06. "If you see him, one thing he always asked me -- and I'm sure he does this with everybody else -- is, 'How are things going? Is everything OK?' He goes out of his way to let you know, 'If there's anything I can do, please don't hesitate to call me, and if I can't help, maybe I know somebody who can.' It's very genuine."
The Reds have had a largely young roster since Baker became skipper before the 2008 season. Although he has long had a reputation for preferring veterans, Cincinnati often had three rookies in the starting lineup this season -- Todd Frazier, Cozart and Devin Mesoraco. Four of the five starters in the rotation are 26 or younger.
"I've listened to everything [Baker has] said and taken everything to heart," Frazier said. "I understand that he's like one of the guys. He wants you to have fun. He wants you to be loose and go about your business. At game time, you click it on.
"He wants you to have fun outside of the field, too. You understand baseball is your life. But when baseball is over with, you don't need to think about it. And when you come to the park tomorrow, it's a new day and let's have fun."***
In the final year of a two-year contract he signed right before the playoffs opened in 2010, Baker is therefore effectively a lame-duck manager. A disappointing 79-win season in 2011 only increased the club's pressure -- and Baker's -- to succeed this season.
Baker has deflected most questions about his status and interest in returning. At the same time, neither has there been any public comment from the Reds on Baker -- save for one statement by president and CEO Bob Castellini.
"I would like to see Dusty Baker as a member of our organization for many years to come," Castellini told MLB.com on Aug. 15 during the Owners' Meetings. "That's it."
Although Baker is a West Coast native who still sets his wristwatch to the Pacific Time Zone, he has maintained his love for the city of Cincinnati. He's often visible around town.
"I really enjoy playing for Dusty. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him," Votto said, endorsing a longer stay for Baker.
There could be managerial vacancies in the offseason for clubs who might compete with the Reds for Baker's services, including West Coast clubs. There is also the reality of the new health complications.
Baker realizes there's a segment of the population that would prefer he doesn't return. Could that sway him to leave?
"I don't know. It doesn't make it any easier," Baker said. "But my life has never been easy. I don't know what I'd do with it [being] easy. I know some of the criticism is there. That's why it bothers me when people say I'm sensitive. You don't know where I come from or where I've been. This is nothing. But still, you do the best job you can do and still don't feel really appreciated sometimes.
"Maybe I was chosen for this. When I came here, Mr. Castellini felt one of the things was the city needed me and he loves this city. [He felt] hopefully I could bring the city together, racially."
Has that been accomplished?
"It's challenging," Baker replied.***
Baker could be a leading contender for NL Manager of the Year -- along with Washington's Davey Johnson -- not just because he led a winning club, but by how he did it. The Reds overcame the Spring Training injuries of three relievers, including new closer Ryan Madson. They went 32-16 while Votto was on the disabled list, as Ryan Ludwick and Frazier stepped up while the whole team stayed together as a unit. A one-game lead over St. Louis on July 16, when Votto left the lineup, had stretched to 8 1/2 games upon his Sept. 3 return.
For a manager who is still blamed by Cubs fans for the injury-shortened careers of pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price have handled the Reds' staff brilliantly this season. None of the five Reds starters have missed a turn in the rotation all season. On May 20, while Sean Marshall was struggling as Madson's replacement as closer, Baker installed Aroldis Chapman to close games. Chapman dominated and could even garner NL Cy Young Award consideration.
In early August, while Jay Bruce was slumping, Baker benched his right fielder for back-to-back games at Chicago. Bruce responded by batting .364 with 12 homers, 29 RBIs over his next 26 games.
"I think it just let me kind of take a step back mentally," Bruce said of the move. "Sometimes you realize a lot of things. Sometimes you just quit thinking so much."
Baker, who managed the 3,000th game of his career on Sept. 18, declines to take credit for the decisions that have worked. He gives it to his players.
"I'm the leader of the orchestra, but they are the guys that are playing the instruments," Baker said. "When you've got guys like Scotty [Rolen] and leaders coming on like Joey [Votto] and Jay [Bruce] and Brandon [Phillips], and [Sean] Marshall comes over here and [Ryan] Ludwick, they're guys that have been on winning teams. Miggy [Miguel Cairo] has been one of the unsung heroes on this team. People only see stats and how a guy is doing, they don't see what he means to the team. I talk team all the time. I don't like any negative. It's a little hard for me to deal with the negativity sometimes. I'm an optimist. I've been that way all my life."
Without Baker holding the conductor's baton, it's certainly been different around the ballpark lately. Having him back would make it a lot more satisfying for the club if it hits all the right notes in the postseason.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon.