It seems oddly appropriate on the 99th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series win in 1908, that the manager who came closest to bringing them back to the WS at any time since 1945, Dusty Baker, would get another chance to manage a major league team. This time it's the Cincinnati Reds. Baker reportedly signed a three-year deal, which will officially be announced at a press conference tomorrow.
I come here neither to bury Baker nor to praise him, but simply, as I did in July 2006 when I finally gave up any premise of supporting him, to explain what I think will happen as he takes over a division rival (and we won't have to wait long to see him; the Reds arrive at Wrigley Field for the thirteenth game of the 2008 season on April 15).
One of the reasons Dusty Baker had fourteen seasons as a major league manager was his instant success at turning two moribund franchises into winners. The 1993 Giants won 103 games, missing the playoffs on the season's final day (and they'd have been a wild card winner in any subsequent season, as the '93 NL West race was termed "The Last Real Pennant Race"); this was after a 90-loss season the year before.
Yes, a big part of that was the addition of the pre-big head Barry Bonds to the team; but another part of it was players' manager Baker, who at the time was only 44 years old and only seven years away from his last days as a player. Baker, from descriptions I've heard, not only was a "players' manager", but wanted to BE one of the guys. He never took charge of a clubhouse the way a manager should. In his early Giants days he had Will Clark keeping some semblance of control, and later on Matt Williams and Jeff Kent, as the Bonds show would have otherwise distracted from the goal at hand, Williams and Kent helped Baker's Giants teams make the postseason three times.
Similarly, with the Cubs in 2003, Baker's easygoing nature helped take a 95-loss team to a Central Division title and -- well, you know the final result. Part of his success was due to the clubhouse leadership of Damian Miller and Eric Karros. By 2004, with those players gone, and no player-leaders there to replace them, the clubhouse dissolved into factions, and Baker's influence over Jim Hendry helped stack the roster with the Rey Ordonezes, Enrique Wilsons, Tony Womacks, and Neifi Perezes of the world, with predictable results.
This is likely what will happen with the 2008 Reds. Without knowing much about the managerial styles of Jerry Narron and Pete Mackanin (who managed the Reds to a winning record, 41-39, and who probably deserved at least a chance to see what he could do with a full season of a healthy team), it seems likely that the player-friendly attitudes of Baker might give the Reds a real bounce for one season. We joke about Baker's tendencies to ride pitchers hard, to misuse his bullpen and to put Neifi on every team he manages (would he really try to bring Tom Goodwin back? Only time will tell). It's very likely that walk-machine Adam Dunn will be traded in the offseason for pitching help; if not, you can joke all you want about Baker telling Dunn "don't walk so much, Dude", but Baker would also probably adore Dunn's big, broad swing that produces 150+ strikeouts a year (and 40+ HR, too). What will be most interesting to see is what Dusty does with top Reds pitching prospect Homer Bailey, or youngish relievers like Todd Coffey and Jared Burton, and especially with Jay Bruce, Baseball America's 2007 Minor League Player of the Year, who by consensus should be starting somewhere in Cincinnati's outfield in 2008. The Reds could have a bounce to contention in 2008, perhaps even squeaking into the playoffs -- where they'd probably fall, due to some move or non-move of Bakers, and then revert to mediocrity in 2009 and beyond.
So welcome back to the fray, Dusty. If the comments at the SB Nation Reds site Red Reporter are any indication, you're in for a rough ride. And at least we won't have to listen to him on ESPN next year. If we learned anything from that, we now know Baker's far worse behind a microphone than he is in a dugout.
Oh, there's a NLCS game tonight, too. The Rockies were 12-5 at home in September and October -- the only loss was to the Diamondbacks. So maybe there's a chance this series won't be a sweep; the Indians made the ALCS interesting last night, in a game whose ending was seen by hardly anyone east of the Mississippi. What do they have to do to get these games over at a reasonable hour -- start them at noon?
MLB.com Gameday for the Rockies/Diamondbacks game (7:37 pm CT start)