Not your garden-variety manager
There's more than meets the eye when it comes to Reds skipper Dusty Baker
It's always a chore navigating 25 personalities and egos in a baseball clubhouse, and managers need to push buttons and establish order in a way that they see fit. One of Dusty Baker's time-honored tools is to bond with players through music, literature and the arts. His office is the baseball equivalent of Oprah's Book Club.
Cincinnati Reds pitcher Homer Bailey, an ardent reader, occasionally combs through the manager's personal library for a new page-turner to help pass the time. Earlier this year Baker suggested that Bailey read Allan W. Eckert's novel "The Frontiersmen," the story of Simon Kenton's role in opening the Northwest territory to settlement. Bailey, in turn, has given Baker two works by Paulo Coelho -- "The Alchemist" and "Warrior of the Light."
"I've borrowed quite a few books from him," Bailey said. "Dusty is a really diverse guy in all the things he's been around and seen. We're just trying to trade knowledge a little bit."
Baker has a reputation as a manager with little tolerance for young players, and that label agitates and confounds him to no end. In 1968, Baker made it to the majors with Atlanta at age 19. Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Clete Boyer and Joe Pepitone were major influences in his formative years with the team, but there were times when Baker felt he had more in common with the bat boys than the veteran Braves because of the age gap.
Now Baker is at the opposite end of the spectrum at 63, and his son Darren, 13, is his pop culture lifeline. If his pants are too tight, Darren is quick to bring it to his attention. And when Darren tells him that something he's done is "sick," he wonders whether that's a good or a bad thing.
During a recent stop at Citi Field in New York, Baker sat in his office with an advance scouting binder, a copy of Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment" and the obligatory plastic box of toothpicks on his desk. The toothpicks keep him off chewing tobacco, and Baker claims to wear wristbands in the dugout to wipe the perspiration off his forehead. But some Dusty-watchers are skeptical.
"I think he does the wristbands and the toothpicks because he was a player," Bailey said. "To him, he's still playing. He's just playing a different position, if you will. Bobby Cox wore spikes for years, and nobody gave him [grief] about that. And he's not sliding into third base any time soon."
Baker keeps plugging away even though Cox and several other contemporaries -- Lou Piniella, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Cito Gaston, to name four -- have drifted off into retirement. He's the fifth-oldest manager in baseball behind Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel, Jim Leyland and Terry Collins, but the passage of time has done nothing to curb his enthusiasm or dull his competitive edge.
That was readily apparent in June when Baker engaged in a nasty exchange with Cleveland pitcher Derek Lowe that crossed the line from contentious to personal, and again recently when he took some shots at La Russa over the omission of Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips from the National League All-Star team.
While Baker's feistiness remains intact, his future in Cincinnati is hazy. He's in the final year of a two-year contract extension with the Reds, which followed the original three-year, $10.5 million deal he signed in 2008, and the next 2½ months will go a long way toward determining whether he returns for the 2013 season and beyond.
The Reds resume play Friday night against St. Louis with a 47-38 record and sit one game behind Pittsburgh in the NL Central and atop a crowded wild-card field. A playoff berth would help secure Baker's future, but sources say there's enough division within the Reds' hierarchy that it might take an extended postseason run to save his job.
Owner Bob Castellini is a perpetual wild card and prone to do impulsive things -- like giving Joey Votto a 10-year, $225 million contract and spending an additional $72.5 million on Phillips just when it appeared the Reds were tapped out. According to one person familiar with the situation, Castellini was "charmed" and fell "head over heels" when the Reds hired Baker five years ago. Baker earned his extension with a playoff berth in 2010, but his $3-4 million salary seems steep for a team that ranks 17th in baseball with an $82 million payroll. And it might take some serious big-footing by Castellini to invest that much in Baker for a third go-round.
General manager Walt Jocketty's allegiance to Baker is unclear, and it seems unlikely that he would push to retain Baker in the absence of a significant team breakthrough. But if not Baker, who? Triple-A manager David Bell probably isn't ready. Jim Riggleman, manager of Double-A Pensacola, is a respected baseball man with a long-standing relationship with Jocketty. But he has a .445 career winning percentage and left his last job in Washington amid a hail of controversy over a contract dispute. La Russa and Terry Francona would be prize catches, but they'd be every bit as costly as Baker.
Baker made it clear several months ago that he has no interest in providing a blow-by-blow of his contract situation, and his lame-duck status has yet to become a distraction. During a spring training interview with MLB.com reporter Mark Sheldon, he pronounced himself unfazed by speculation that he's on the "hot seat."
"How many times have I been there?" Baker said. "By this time, my butt should be burnt up."
Baker's posterior is intact. But if he's paying close attention, his ears are probably burning. The changing media landscape provides a greater opportunity for knee-jerk reactions and second-guessing. And with the possible exception of Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez and Colorado's Jim Tracy, it's hard to find a manager who's subjected to a more relentless flow of criticism. The "Fire Dusty Baker" movement is gaining traction on blogs, a Facebook page and a Twitter site that provides an outlet for Reds fans who pronounce themselves tired of "questionable line-ups, too-late pitching changes & utter buffoonery."
He's one of the more diverse and complete men I've ever met. The range is so broad.” -- Reds bench coach Chris
Speier on Dusty Baker
The biggest complaint against Baker, according to one Reds insider, is his "undying loyalty" to scrappy, marginally talented players. The list includes Willy Taveras, Corey Patterson and Willie Harris, who have joined former Cubs infielder Neifi Perez in the pantheon of Dusty favorites who seemingly inspired greater devotion than their numbers would warrant. In April, while Reds die-hards were hoping for an extended look at young Todd Frazier, Baker publicly observed, "We've got to get Willie going." Harris, 0-for-9 at the time, went 5-for-his-next-35 before the Reds finally outrighted him to Triple-A Louisville in late June.
Wilson Valdez, who has a .287 career on-base percentage, has started nine games in the second spot in the batting order. Meanwhile, catcher Ryan Hanigan, who ranks second on the team to Votto with a .356 OBP, has hit almost exclusively in the eighth spot. Baker once famously observed that "on-base percentage is great if you can score runs and do something with that on-base percentage. On-base percentage just to clog up the bases isn't that great to me." Regardless of the message Baker meant to convey, the comment is sure to stick to him for the rest of his baseball life.
In several cases, Baker's postgame explanations merely ratchet up the criticism of his moves. Three weeks ago, Reds reliever Bill Bray returned after missing more than two months with a groin injury and a back ailment. Bray entered a game against Minnesota with the bases loaded in the sixth inning and proceeded to walk home the tying run and allow a sacrifice fly to give the Twins a 5-4 lead. When Baker observed that he called on Bray rather than Sean Marshall in the sixth because "I wanted to get him in a less-pressurized situation," jaws dropped and hands slapped foreheads in unison throughout Reds country.
Says one veteran scout, "Dusty tends to make statements in the press to give players confidence and build them up. But he doesn't seem to give much thought to how it might look to the fans."
Baker's status as a punching bag says a lot about how quickly personal narratives can change. Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants won two NL West titles and went 840-715 under Baker's watch from 1993 through 2002. And long before Joe Maddon arrived on the scene in Tampa Bay, Baker was the embodiment of the ultra-cool, free-thinking, MLB renaissance man. Baker has traveled extensively, speaks fluent Spanish and can expound at length on wine, politics or the relative merits of John Lee Hooker and B.B. King.
"He's one of the more diverse and complete men I've ever met," said Reds bench coach Chris Speier. "The range is so broad. It can go from the typical hunting and fishing to the arts. It doesn't matter if it's black art or Egyptian art or anything else. And from there you might go from a philosophical discussion to talking about street gangs.
"I think there's another aspect of Dusty that he doesn't want people to see. He's one of the most giving men I've ever seen in regards to doing things for other people. He's got a huge heart. It's not about ego. These are things he believes in and wants to do for other people, and for different causes and humanity in general."
Baker's aura of "cool" took a hit during his five-year run in Chicago, when he had to deal with the Steve Bartman fallout, a declining Sammy Sosa, devastating injuries to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and a 66-win season in 2007. Neither Wood nor Prior has ever blamed Baker for his health issues, but Baker seems to be held to a higher standard than other managers when it comes to pitching injuries. This year in Toronto, for example, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison and Brandon Morrow have all gone down with injuries. But the analysts have generally chalked it up to bad luck rather than poor usage by Blue Jays manager John Farrell.
Dusty-bashers, take note: Only two big league clubs have gone the entire 2012 season with five starters. One is Ozzie Guillen's Miami Marlins. The other is Dusty Baker's Cincinnati Reds.
Baker, in this lame-duck season, has shown flashes of testiness and impatience when questioned over lineup decisions and strategic moves. But he claims to be undaunted by criticism as a rule. He's more puzzled than angry when people say he has a bias against young players or a flair for ruining young pitchers.
"With my background, where I come from, there isn't too much that bothers me," Baker said. "People can say what they want to say. It doesn't matter to me at all. I know who I am and how I am. I feel comfortable in my own skin."
Baker's players are generally receptive to his methods because he remembers from personal experience how humbling the game can be. When he has a message to deliver, it won't be distilled through the Reds' beat writing contingent.
"He always has his door closed and he's in there talking to somebody," Speier said. "Dusty's big on that: 'If I have something to say, I'm going to bring you in one-on-one, man-to-man, and I'll tell you the truth even if it's not what you want to hear.' He's always been good that way."
With my background, where I come from, there isn't too much that bothers me. People can say what they want to say. It doesn't matter to me at all. I know who I am and how I am. I feel comfortable in my own skin.” -- Dusty Baker
Baker is big on personal touches and diligently researched bonding rituals. Frazier, a New Jersey native, was sitting down to eat dinner with bullpen coach Juan "Porky" Lopez during the Reds' FanFest several years ago when Baker stopped by their table, paid for their meals and asked Frazier about his experience playing in the Little League World Series with Toms River, N.J., in 1998. After Frazier made it to Cincinnati, Baker stopped by his locker and gave him a photocopy of a signed letter that he once received from Hoboken, N.J., native Frank Sinatra.
"He always brings up Hank Aaron stories -- how Hank taught him the ins and outs of the game," Frazier said. "He calls me Junior. He'll say, 'Come here, Junior,' and explain things to me in a way that I can relate. He understands how it is when you're young and you need some help every once in a while."
Bailey remembers picking up the phone a few years ago and being surprised to hear former Giants second baseman Jeff Kent's voice at the other end. Baker figured the two Texans could talk a little hunting, and that Kent might be able to pass along some tips to Bailey on what to expect from his new manager.
"You hear so many bad things about Jeff Kent," Bailey said. "He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. That's just the kind of thing Dusty would do. He wants you to succeed not only on the field but in life in general."
Does Baker's approach create an environment that can allow players to get too comfortable at times? Perhaps. Like Bobby Cox, he will go to great lengths not to rip his players to the media. So it was telling recently when Reds starter Mat Latos pitched poorly against Cleveland and suggested the Indians might be stealing signs, and Baker responded, "You don't really have to steal signs when the ball is down the heart of the plate and up." That's about as close as Baker will get to trashing a player publicly.
Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff series since 1995, and it remains to be seen whether the Reds have a lineup that can grind out at-bats against elite pitching in October or a rotation capable of holding up against playoff-caliber batting orders. But you can be sure the Reds will run out balls and play with passion, and that's a reflection of their manager.
"When it comes to winning and losing, I don't think there's anybody who wants it more than Dusty," said outfielder Jay Bruce.
For the sake of Baker's long-term future in Cincinnati, losing is no longer an option.