CINCINNATI — For a lame duck, Dusty Baker doesn’t waddle when he walks. In fact, he walks like a man and talks like a man.
His contract expires after this season and, despite having his team in first place most of the season, the Cincinnati Reds manager hasn’t heard the first peep from the front office about a contract extension.
“I’m getting tired of getting asked that question everywhere we go on the road from other players, coaches, managers, scouts and front office people from other teams,” Baker said Saturday afternoon as he stood behind the batting cage watching his team take practice cuts before an important game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It’s gone this far (with nothing happening) so I figure I might as well ride it out the rest of the year and see where it goes,” he said. “You know, at this stage of my life I have a big say in it, too.”
Before Baker arrived in 2008, the franchise was in a messy cesspool of the losing doldrums, 11 straight seasons below .500.
A new regime — fronted by CEO/president Bob Castellini — which was dedicated to returning the luster to the proud franchise, preferred a known and successful commodity and brought in Baker to manage.
And the turnaround began.
By 2010, the team was in the playoffs for the first time since 1995 before it was swept in the first round by the Philadelphia Phillies.
Baker, though, predicted bigger and better things and he is delivering. The team faltered in 2011, but despite major holes and major injuries, Baker has the Reds back on course toward the playoffs.
The Reds began Saturday’s game tied for first place in the National
League Central with the Pittsburgh Pirates, against all odds.
And, yet, Baker is a lightning rod for fan criticism — sometimes for his strategic moves (or non-moves), but mostly for whom he plays and doesn’t play and for the batting orders he writes on the lineup card.
The current issue is: “Why are you playing Scott Rolen at third base when he is hitting .178 and fighting back spasms when rookie Todd Frazier is playing so well? And why do you keep running Miguel Cairo up to the plate in key pinch-hitting situations with his .147 average?”
On this day, as have been so many in June and July, the thermometer was pushing 90 and the humidity was thick enough to cover a slice of toast.
“This is one reason,” Baker said. “Some teams who are playing the same guys day after day are going to run out of gas. We are on a streak of playing 13 straight games without a day off. Then we get a day off and play 17 more days without a day off.
“That’s why you have to play everybody, you need everybody,” he said. “I’m still convinced Rolen and Miggie (Cairo) are going to come around. And if I don’t play Rolen, I risk wearing out Frazier. We need to get through the July and August heat and hope it cools off in September and we can get our strength back.”
Rest is important in Baker’s scheme and he has a theory about players who appear in the All-Star Game.
“I’ve noticed that players who are in the All-Star Game always start off slow in the second half,” he said. “They not only try to do well, they try to turn it up a notch in the All-Star Game. While the rest of the players are taking three days off, the All-Stars are playing and traveling.”
Cincinnati’s position All-Stars were first baseman Joey Votto and right fielder Jay Bruce.
“I’m going to give them some time off real soon,” said Baker. “I would have given Votto off Friday if we were playing a lesser team, but we need him against the Cardinals.”
Baker draws heat, too, for seemingly sitting players after they’ve done well the previous game or two — Frazier homered Friday and sat for Rolen Saturday. Frazier had two hits and scored two runs in San Diego the day before the All-Star break, but sat the next day as Rolen went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.
“People always want me to play the hot hand,” said Baker. “If you play a guy with a hot hand in a difficult situation he won’t have the hot hand for long. I try to match them up. If a guy is a low-ball hitter I put him in against a low-ball pitcher. If he is a high-ball hitter I look for a high-ball pitcher.
“That’s the way I did it last year with Chris Heisey and Jonny Gomes in left field and that protects them and benefits them in the long run, and helps the team,” said Baker.
Baker lost three main bullpen operatives in spring training in closer Ryan Madson (gone for the season), Nick Masset (still not back) and Bill Bray (back but barely used). Instead the team has patched together a bullpen that is near the top of the National League.
Rolen, a key player — a leader in the clubhouse and a veteran presence on the field — is enduring his worst professional season.
The team has no legitimate leadoff hitter and is using rookie Zack Cozart as a patch-in. The team has no legitimate cleanup hitter and is using second baseman Brandon Phillips as a patch-in.
Left field remains a blot in the lineup with Ryan Ludwick, Heisey and Frazier as interchangeable parts, although Ludwick has begun producing as of late.
When all that is mentioned to Baker, what a great job he has done to have the team in first place despite injuries, some players underachieving (Drew Stubbs, .212) and players hitting in unnatural spots, Baker says quickly, “I doubt if everybody believes that or thinks about that stuff.”
But it is there, on display, for all to see. And the standings don’t lie.