There was a time when there was no doubt that Dusty Baker was the most popular manager in the big leagues. We watched him work and talked about it -- everyone wanted to play for him. He just seemed cool.
Of course, Dusty has come under fire from time to time for some of his managerial decisions, but you can't argue with his success. Once again, he has the Cincinnati Reds in the playoff hunt, and with his contract up at the end of the year, he is going to be in spotlight in the second half of the season. Take it from me, he won't wilt, and I can tell you why he's been such a success.
In 2003, I ended up on Dusty's Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were gunning for the playoffs, and I was traded from Texas to Chicago to try to help with their second-half surge.
I knew what everyone knew about Dusty. I knew about his "chewing sticks," the flavored toothpicks that were his signature items. I'd heard of the healthy shakes he would drink after surviving prostate cancer. Then there was his son, Darren, made famous for being the youngest big league bat boy in history, who went to pick up a bat while the ball was still in play during Game 5 of the 2002 World Series. Fortunately for him, J.T. Snow picked him up after he crossed home plate so Darren wouldn't get run over by the next baserunner.
I knew the Cubs also traded for Kenny Lofton, another center fielder who was hot. His performance limited my play. I made spot starts, pinch ran and pinch hit. I wasn't thrilled about platooning. A righty, I was one of the hottest hitters in the American League before the trade with a near .400 average in July for the Rangers. Since I would be a free agent after the 2003 season, I wanted to play, so I could have a future in the game. But this was my first real opportunity to make the playoffs, so I had to play by his rules. "In Dusty We Trusty" was the T-shirt we made.
I had to understand Baker as a manager to truly believe that slogan -- plus it also was important that Baker saw a role for me. He liked the hot hand. When someone or some combination of players was rolling, he rolled with it. But he would throw out conventional wisdom when he saw fit.
In a game in September against the Cardinals, my teammate and right-handed hitter Ramon Martinez was due up against righty Russ Springer. Dusty asked me, "Can you hit this guy?" I told him, "I already have a home run off of him." He said, "Go ahead then." He asked a question, got the pulse of the situation and rolled with it. I appreciated that. Even though I grounded out to short, I knew he was a manager who would think about things on the fly.
He was a player's manager, but I always saw him as old-school, too. I came over from Texas with an afro so large that my helmet nearly went up an entire size. He pulled me aside one day and said, "Man, that is out of control, cut it or braid it, but do something with it." It was true, it was out of control, but I thought he would feel my 1970s soul. He was fun but ran a tight ship.
Dusty's speeches to us were one-of-a-kind. I had a constant half-smile on my face to the point where my cheeks got tired. He didn't quote Vince Lombardi, Jackie Robinson or Earl Weaver. He quoted 50 Cent. Baker always was up on pop culture, keeping things loose, enjoying the music. I think one of our NLCS speeches was out of a scene from "The Godfather."
During our run to winning the NL Central, we played Montreal in Puerto Rico. I went out with some teammates to a restaurant in San Juan. I walked in and saw Dusty, and the rule is that whoever was there first stays. This is for the moment when players go out and see a coach at the same place. A good rule. So I immediately went to leave, then I heard him yell over an invitation to stay and have a good time. "Hey Glanville! Where are you going? Get back here!" I just had to laugh, but that's the kind of thinking that makes Dusty different from other managers.
After we won the division and headed to the playoffs, our roster was flush. Our manager had to make some tough decisions. He called me in to ask, "You have played some infield before, right?"
"Sure, in Little League," I said.
But then I saw that he was debating whether to take me for the postseason roster. We had a lot of outfielders, and when Tony Womack went down late in the season, Dusty needed someone who could play infield, if necessary. He saw me as a possibility and gave me a shot to accept the challenge. So I did.
This led to pregame workouts at shortstop, which for a lifetime center fielder was like playing the outfield in army boots and a parachute. Of course, worse yet was how close I came to coming into a real game for my infield debut in the NLDS against the Braves. Dusty pinch hit for starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez in the sixth inning, leaving me as the only "infielder" left on the bench. Ugly was just around the corner, but thankfully, I did not get in and set a major league record for errors per minute.
I didn't play much during the playoffs (while hoping I never had to enter the game as an emergency shortstop). But I got a shot in Game 3 of the NLCS when I hit a triple against right-handed pitcher Braden Looper to drive in the winning run while Lofton was stealing second.
Dusty was always on top of managing perception, aware of how the game was played in the media, especially with the opponents who may have been reading the stories. So before the news conference about the game-winning triple, Dusty pulled me aside and let me know not to say anything about whether that winning hit was on a hit-and-run.
So I told reporters about how I hit right-handers my entire life and that I can hit a fastball. But that night, no one knew whether it was a hit-and-run. (To this day, I am not even sure if it was or not. I was too in the zone when I got in the box, so everything was on autopilot from the trance I felt like I was in.)
Dusty was sure of himself. You believed in him. He was someone you followed, even blindly. Anyone who would fight Tony La Russa to the death -- probably -- was all-in. Even though I didn't always agree with him -- I wanted to do more for the Cubs -- as he would say: "Some of you may be smarter than me, but none of you have been around as long as I have." Wisdom, not smarts.
We fell short in that 2003 series, as the world already knows. Dusty took it in stride. He didn't yell at anyone. He just told us to keep our heads up for what was a great run. When the season ended, he called me to say he would love to have me back. I ended up signing with the Phillies, but I certainly would have loved to play for him again. Even if I wasn't going to be a starter, I would have at least been playing for Dusty, and I knew that would help me remember to enjoy the game.
These days Baker is finding his mojo (a word that fits Baker perfectly) again with a strong season in Cincinnati. He sticks to what he knows, and at times, that might bite him, but he is just being Dusty, managing the game the way he played it, without apology.