A World Series winner as a player, Reds manager has unfinished business
CINCINNATI -- Long before he was actually wearing a Reds uniform, manager Dusty Baker had a dream involving his father -- Johnnie B. Baker Sr. -- and winning a World Series while wearing a uniform with the color red.
"That was a long time ago," Baker said. "I had never been in a red uniform -- not in my whole life."
For the past six seasons, Baker has been not just been wearing a red uniform for the first time, but a Reds uniform. For three of the past four years, he's led Cincinnati into the postseason. So far, no World Series. The dream is still more than alive, however.
"I'm here; I never thought I'd be here," Baker said. "[Bullpen coach] Juan Lopez's wife may have put that in my head. She said she had a dream I was in a red uniform. This was 10 years ago. Then I had the same dream. I'm one who believes in my dreams. I dreamt I would be a pro ballplayer. I think as you get older, people cease to dream. Young people seem to dream. Older people don't dream as much -- at least dreams that you can remember. When you're a kid, you dream about everything."
Baker is in his 20th season of a managing career that began with the Giants in 1993. Although he has won a World Series -- as a player for the Dodgers in 1981 -- he's experienced only one as a manager, during his final season with San Francisco in 2002. That team lost the Series in seven games to the Angels.
After his stint with the Giants, Baker spent four years with the Cubs, which included a near-miss of the World Series in his first season there, 2003, when Chicago lost the National League Championship Series to the Marlins in seven games following the Steve Bartman fiasco in Game 6.
With Cincinnati since 2008, Baker led the Reds to NL Central titles in 2010 and '12, and they'll be an NL Wild Card entrant this year. No Cincinnati manager since Sparky Anderson has guided his teams to the postseason as frequently.
Last year's attempt to go all the way was marred down the stretch. In mid-September before a game at Wrigley Field, Baker went to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat and suffered a minor stroke just being discharged. He was still in Chicago a few days later when the Reds clinched the division but was back before the end of the season. Cincinnati took a 2-0 NL Division Series lead at San Francisco before losing three in a row and being eliminated by the Giants.
Now, the Reds have another shot.
"Everybody wants to make it happen, because we want to be World Series champions -- and Dusty fits right into that," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "He obviously has had a very nice career, and he's a storied manager. He's probably one of the most well-respected guys in the game -- from players to coaches to everyone. I think it would be a topping on the cake if we won a World Series."
"Dusty deserves it just as much as we do," shortstop Zack Cozart said.
While respected, Baker isn't necessarily without critics. In the ether of social media, it seems like there are detractors lined up around the virtual block. Many proponents of advanced statistics, especially, criticize Baker's lineup choices, his frequent use of sacrifice bunting and his preference to stick to "the book" in using closer Aroldis Chapman.
"Everybody knows what I should do," said Baker, whose two-year contract has one season remaining after this year. "Everybody can do my job, but they've never done it. They do it on fantasy [baseball]. They can just plug in a reliever. They don't need no time to get loose or nothing."
Players have generally supported Baker and trust the motives for his decisions. Rarely has there been criticism, privately or publicly, directed toward him from the clubhouse.
"He has a long track record of a lot of positives -- he's been there," Cozart said. "Just like little things of giving guys days off. He kind of senses if your bat is slow. I don't think the average fan knows the little things like that. We have full faith in Dusty and all the moves he makes or doesn't make. We're behind him 100 percent. We don't really pay attention when fans or a blogger says he shouldn't have brought in a pitcher or whatever. Dusty knows us as good as anybody and knows how to win. That's all we really care about."
While Baker's managerial style has been dissected, there's no disputing the record of success.
Baker ranks 16th all time in wins with 1,671, and he's second among active skippers behind the Tigers' Jim Leyland. This will be Baker's seventh trip to the postseason, and he is a three-time NL Manager of the Year.
First-year Astros manager Bo Porter, Baker's friend, believes Baker's managerial resume is worthy of Hall of Fame recognition.
"You look at the number of victories and the number of different clubs he's led to prominence -- the results pretty much speak for themselves," Porter said. "Aside from the resume, just the person he is and the different things he has done for the communities in which he's managed and the many people that have had an opportunity to cross his path. His motto is, 'Impact people and make people's lives better,' and he's done that for me."
Everyone in the top 15 for wins, with the exception of Gene Mauch, has won a World Series. The only managers in that group who aren't in the Hall of Fame -- Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Leyland -- aren't yet eligible, but all are likely headed to Cooperstown at some point.
Baker doesn't feel he has to have a World Series win on his resume to complete his career.
"Bobby Cox only won one and he's considered one of the greatest managers of all time," Baker said. "There are a bunch of guys -- some of them are in the Hall of Fame. My man with the [NFL's] Buffalo Bills -- Marv Levy -- [never won]. That doesn't mean you're not good at what you do. I don't think about that. I don't think about anything completing until I quit. Then I will be complete."
Until then, Baker will keep trying to go for that World Series ring, perhaps in a Reds uniform.
"I'm 64, but I've still got some kid in me," Baker said. "I still believe in my dreams."