Yesterday, I created a bit of a firestorm by writing about the Jason Grimsley PED issue.
So today, I thought maybe I'd write something a little less contentious.
However, today's topic is Dusty Baker, since so many of you have asked me why I think he's the right man for the job. And this is likely to cause another tempest, because I know many of you have passionate feelings about Baker and the job he's doing.
The reason I'm doing this is not only because you asked, but because I am truly disappointed in the results of the manager poll that I posted a few days ago.
I listed seventeen different names (eighteen or more, if you include "Somebody else) for your choice for manager for 2007, and the winner is -- a guy who's never managed in the major leagues, nor coached, nor done anything since his playing career ended except talk about the game on television. Full disclosure: Stone, before he signed with the Cubs to broadcast for the 1983 season, did a three-game tryout with ABC Sports, doing Monday Night Baseball games. I worked one of those games with him in the booth, on July 5, 1982 -- with Howard Cosell also part of that broadcast team.
Steve Stone is an excellent broadcaster, and it's not going too far to say that he could the best color commentator in the history of televised baseball. He's got great insights into the game, has a terrific voice and a personality that has meshed well with several different broadcasters, as well as Cub fans, and the ultimate tribute to his broadcasting ability was the first part of the 1987 season when he held down the fort with a couple dozen "guest announcers" when Harry Caray was felled by a stroke.
But talking about baseball on television day by day does NOT translate into the ability to manage twenty-five disparate individuals into a team that can win on the field. Frankly, Steve Stone is the LEAST qualified man on that list to be a major league manager. At least the other broadcaster listed, Bob Brenly, has some experience in the job -- and won a World Series, too.
Joe Girardi, who finished second in the poll, at least is an actual manager, although how good he is at that job is impossible to tell, since he is basically managing a Double-A team at the major league level. In a radio interview earlier this year, Girardi said he spends hours every day teaching. This isn't what a major league manager should do.
I think you all voted with your hearts -- picking names of people you love, or are fans of, instead of the best-qualified person on the list.
Part of the problem is that all of us as Cubs fans are so parched, dying for a World Series, because after all, 98 years is absolutely, positively long enough. For that reason, any season that isn't headed in that direction is going to be criticized. Thus, in a way, to a large degree, losing becomes epidemic. It ebbs and flows. There can be "winning" rhythms and "losing" ones -- you've seen me write that "winning breeds winning", and in the same way, "losing breeds losing". This is the sort of thing that's impossible to put on a spreadsheet or quote stats about, but ask anyone in a major league clubhouse and they'll nod their heads "yes" knowingly.
You might cite the Yankees as an exception to all of this but they, too have had bad years -- and also "good years" when they've blown through the regular season, but have failed in the postseason. Why is this? Part of it is random chance, part of it is running into a "hot" team in October, part of it is the fact that the Yankees have built a great team to win the long-haul, 162-game season, but not necessarily win a short series.
Why don't the Cubs have good years? They have, as you know, at times, but because of the World Series drought, these become largely unfelt as "good years". I have heard many of you say words to the effect of, "If we can't win the World Series this year, we suck"; but you know that's not true. Most teams are quite happy with a winning season, even if that doesn't result in a championship, and you know the reason. It's because they or someone in their families have experienced a World Championship. They've either lived it or basked in it through someone they love. Fans of teams like, say, the Braves, who make the playoffs every year since 1991, and the World Series five times, know that feeling well -- almost too well. Why do you think they don't sell out first-round playoff games?
Fans like that aren't as parched and starving as we are. Look at the outpourings of love over the last two years when the two Soxes won after decades of failure -- you heard people say things like, "My grandfather can die happy now". And they MEANT that.
Here's another factor. Even when other teams are losers, they get new ballparks and it makes the team feel "new". We as Cub fans can't dismiss the sense of starvation with a feeling of newness because of the history and tradition of Wrigley Field, where they've played since 1916. It's the same place they've "always been", at least in our lifetimes. Clearly, this is why some of you continue to say that Wrigley Field should be torn down. But as I have written before, the ballpark isn't the problem. Red Sox fans love Fenway Park as much as Cub fans love Wrigley Field. Was Fenway Park the reason the Red Sox didn't win for 86 years? Of course not.
Fire Dusty? Why? I've said this before as well: how many managers do you want to run through? Every time the ballclub has a crappy month, are you going to call for the manager's head? Here is why I like Dusty Baker, and it has nothing to do with his lineup selections (which I admit, are frequently bizarre), or the way he uses relief pitchers (also bordering on the eccentric), or his goofy statements about walks clogging the bases -- which I admit, are ridiculous. I do believe he has wisdom; the term "sage" comes to my mind. He isn't a hothead. He knows, to repeat what I've written here many times before, that he's running a marathon, not a sprint, but no one seems to have the patience to let him do it. Some of you apparently want to see some bloodshed because of the poor performance. If Dusty ran out of the dugout and pitched a fit occasionally, or screamed at someone in the clubhouse, would that help? It would help people think he's "doing something," but it's not about how much you can yell or rant and rave. It's almost as if you feel you're not getting your "money's worth" if he won't do that, and feel that quiet Dusty isn't giving it to you.
It's easy to say "fire Dusty", but for whom? Stone? Girardi? Lou Piniella? The next one who experiences the "epidemic of losing" will experience the same wrath; it may be a cliche, but it's true: "Managers are hired to be fired." How many managers in the last thirty years, say, have gone out of the game on their own terms, retired without being fired, somewhat on top? Not many. Joe Torre might. Bobby Cox might. Tommy Lasorda did, but he's an exception because of his "celebrity" status in Los Angeles.
And the reality of it is (and people say I don't want to confront reality, but HERE IT IS): Dusty Baker's likely going to get a contract extension to match the one that Jim Hendry got last month. Do either of them deserve it based on this year's performance? No, they don't. But the reality of it is that it's going to happen, likely in a few weeks after Derrek Lee and Mark Prior return, and presumably the Cubs approach .500 again.
So let's deal with THAT, rather than the knee-jerk "fire everyone!" that we hear over and over and over when things aren't going well. Deal with it, talk about what sort of team could be put together to win WITH Dusty as manager. Because whether you want him there or not, he's very likely not going anywhere.
Oh, incidentally: yes, I voted for Baker in my poll. But my second choice would have been Joey Cora -- who is a well-respected coach for a team that just won a championship, knows the game, and speaks Spanish. That may seem trivial, but in the modern baseball world where almost 25% of major leaguers have Spanish as their first language (and 32%, 8 of 25, of the current Cub 25-man roster is Latino), this is more critical than ever. The White Sox players and management will tell you that the sudden blossoming of Jose Contreras' career last year was due in no small measure to him having a manager (and coaches) who could communicate with him in his native language.
That said, it's perfectly reasonable -- indeed, necessary, given the terrible start the 2006 Cubs have had -- to talk about how to improve this team. But it must be done in the context of how Dusty Baker will lead it, because whether you like it or not, I think he will be the manager in 2007, and probably 2008 as well. And that's OK with me. Now let's go out and get him a team with championship-caliber players. Because in the end, the guys on the field have to get it done.