Lessons learned, Baker has Reds ready for Pirates
PITTSBURGH – Dusty Baker was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980 when they swept Houston in the final three games of the regular season at Dodger Stadium to force a one-game playoff with the Astros to decide the National League West title. There were no wild cards back then and only two division winners made the postseason.
“We begged (Tommy) Lasorda to start Fernando (Valenzuela) instead of Dave Goltz,” said Baker Monday afternoon while sitting in his office at PNC Park. “Nothing against Dave Goltz, but all of us wanted Fernando. But that was a safer way out, taking the veteran over the kid.”
Houston won its first division title with a 7-1 victory.
Baker’s first season as manager was 1993 with San Francisco. The Giants had won 103 games, including 10 of 11, but were tied with Atlanta for first place in the division with one day left in the regular season. They were facing the Dodgers in L.A., while the Braves were in Colorado for a game with the Rockies.
Baker started rookie Salomon Torres over veterans Scott Sanderson or Jim DeShaies. The Giants lost 12-1 and were left out of the postseason when the Braves beat the Rockies.
“I went the opposite of what Lasorda did,” said Baker. “I went with the talent in Salomon Torres vs. the experience of Scott Sanderson and Jim Deshaies. I didn’t think that gave us much of a chance. You do what you think is right. Most times it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Baker is a lightning rod for criticism, especially in this day and age of Twitter and instant reaction without thought. Baker thinks about things, relying on his playing experience and the lessons he learned from the likes of Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Ralph Garr and others. He relies on information at hand from scouts and his coaching staff and he relies on his relationships with players.
As the Reds prepare to play the Pirates Tuesday night in the one-game National League Wild Card playoff, Baker is assured of one thing: he is going to do what he believes gives his team the best opportunity to win and advance to the NL Division Series against St. Louis. The Reds lost five in a row to end the regular season, including a three-game sweep at home at the hands of the Pirates.
They went from being two games behind St. Louis and having a shot at winning the NL Central title at the beginning of the week to finishing seven games behind the Cardinals.
None of that matters now.
“They say you backed in or limped in,” said Baker. “It don’t matter how you got there, you just get there. You say ‘we limped in’ or whatever, that’s a very negative connotation. I don’t deal in negatives.”
That’s something his players respect. They know he played at the same level they are playing the game. They know he had success as a player, both individually and with the teams he was on. It’s not why they like playing for him or trust him.
“I think overall players ignore what you did as player and pay more attention to how you treat the players and whether or not you have smarts,” said first baseman Joey Votto. “It doesn’t really matter whether or not he played because he’s a manager that players respect for those reasons.
“I’m standing at first base and I can’t count how many times players come up to me and say, ‘Man, I would love to play for Dusty.’
Nobody says that about a manager. Nobody says ‘I wish I could play for ‘said’ manager.’ It’s just not a conversation that players typically have, but Dusty has earned that, which speaks volumes.”
Baker has the Reds in the postseason for the third time in four seasons. That’s something the organization hasn’t experienced since the heydays of the 1970s. It’s the seventh time he’s guided a ballclub to the postseason in 20 seasons with San Francisco, the Chicago Cubs and now the Reds. Only Jim Leyland of Detroit has more wins among active managers.
What’s missing from his managerial resume is a World Series title. If he is to get one this season with the Reds, or in the future be it in Cincinnati or elsewhere, he’s going to do it the way he knows how.
“When you’re in elementary school there’s always some weird wall and fear factor of the principal of the school and there’s kind of that sense with a big league ballclub, especially with a young club like we have,” said pitcher Bronson Arroyo. “But Dusty doesn’t move in that space. He’s always made sure he still feels like a guy that stepped off the field yesterday, and that’s why he still wears the wrist bands and used to wear the spikes in the dugout and that kind of stuff.”
Baker is sending Johnny Cueto to the mound with the ball Tuesday against the Pirates. Cueto has been hurt much of the season but Baker believes in him. The front office and the players believe in Cueto, in how he has worked to return from his injured lat. They also believe in Cueto because Baker believes.
This is the situation that gives his team the best chance to win.
“You have to be careful. You’re always bombarded by negatives,” said Baker. “How many positive people do you meet? Most people, I feel, are negative. I’m going to protect my team from that. This is a one-game thing. This is something that no matter how you got here you’re going to have to play one somewhere.
“Talk is cheap. You’ve just got to go out there and play.”