Dusty Baker, 64, has spent more than 40 years in baseball. As such, he seems -- or seemed, before the Reds let him go on Friday -- like one of the game's more stable institutions. If he doesn't end up taking another managing job, next season will feel strange without him.
His footprint in the game is large, and his legacy, while positive on the whole, is also complicated, as was his firing. That reportedly came because he refused to let one of his coaches take the fall for him, yet it also has not a little to do with several disappointing postseasons, and perhaps a refusal to embrace advanced statistics and strategies that might have maximized the Reds' chances. Some consider him a great person and a great clubhouse leader; others consider him a stubbornly poor tactician. Both groups are probably right.
Baker was a very good player, from the early '70s through the mid-'80s, and subsequently a very good manager. But he never won a championship in the latter role, despite taking some very good teams to six playoff appearances and winning three Manager of the Year awards. One can argue that this wasn't entirely bad luck, either, though no doubt there was plenty of that (Bartman!). He has amassed 1,671 wins to his 1,504 losses, but the lone pennant and lack of rings means he may have a tough time cracking the Hall of Fame, should this be the end of his managerial career. The arguments are likely to involve a lot of discussion of intangibles and sabermetrics -- and, therefore, to be contentious.
Managing is largely about leadership, and Baker by most accounts had that part down -- at least, perhaps, until very recently. He has been almost universally respected in his clubhouses over the decades. But managing is also about making a lot of small, correct decisions that cumulatively give your club an edge. In that role, Baker was often criticized -- a Fire Joe Morgan regular, and not without reason ("clogging the bases," indeed). Both in this postseason and in last year's, he made a number of questionable decisions down the stretch that, while not the main factor in his team's losses, didn't help the club overcome its weaknesses, either.
Baker became a manager in 1993. That's 18 years after Frank Robinson broke the color line in the manager's office, yet only a handful of African-American managers held that role between Robinson and Baker. (There was Larry Doby for less than a full season, Maury Wills for part of two seasons, and Cito Gaston starting in 1989; Don Baylor started the same year as Baker, in '93.) Tempting as it may be to think this wasn't an issue by the '90s, that was not the case. Even this year, Baker told CBS Sports on Friday, he received "a rash of hate mail, racial mail … There are all sorts of references to Barack Obama. So now I know where they are coming from. I don't know, maybe people are mad at him, so they don't like the idea of blacks in authority." That's something Baker unfortunately has had plenty of experience dealing with.
Loyal to a fault (sometimes to players whose on-field performance didn't justify it), Baker earned his troops' trust by having their backs in almost all circumstances. And for all his old-school tendencies in strategy, he could be quite progressive when it came to other aspects of the game. One of the things that impressed me most about Baker, and struck many in baseball the same way, was his pitch-perfect handling of Joey Votto's anxiety disorder in 2009. In a game that too often doesn't understand mental health issues, or treats them as a weakness, Baker was an oasis: understanding, empathetic, respectful.
So it's probably no coincidence that one aspect of the game where Baker undoubtedly did adapt and learn was in his use of pitchers. Many Cubs fans still blame Baker to this day for destroying their young pitchers' arms through overuse in the mid-2000s, most notable Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Pitching injuries are complex and still not fully understood, and we'll probably never know for sure just how much Baker was at fault there, but there's certainly reason to question his actions. What is clear, though, is that Baker changed his approach in Cincinnati, where he was much more cautious with young arms. In other words, when change meant protecting his players, he took the necessary steps to make that happen.
So how important, in the scheme of things, are his failures to adapt to other parts of the game? It would be silly to think that bunting too much or failing to appreciate the importance of on-base percentage diminished him as a person. Still, more than is the case in most manager firings, his decisions probably hurt the Reds.
Managers generally work with the talent they're given and can only make a team so much better -- or worse -- than its players. And generally, the difference between the best and worst managerial tactics, within reason, only amounts to a few wins over the course of a season. In the case of the Reds, however, who play in the extremely tight National League Central, a few games made a huge difference. Had they eked out just a couple more wins, they could have had home-field advantage over the Pirates in the wild-card game. Maybe that wouldn't have mattered, but another couple wins more and they could have had a shot at the division and a best-of-five playoff series. For a team that reached the playoffs three out of four years and won only two games, failing to use every possible strategic advantage is a killer.
Baker may be back; age 64 doesn't mean what it used to. If he isn't, he leaves a winning record and a deep well of respect from his players -- as well as a lot of speculation as to what might have been, had he been just a bit more flexible and open to change.