Bad Feelings Left in the Bay Area
Something just didn’t seem quite right as Dusty Baker made his way under the grandstands at Pacific Bell Park. And it wasn’t because of the Chicago Cub uniform he was wearing.
Baker was lost. He didn’t know where to find the visiting team’s clubhouse. “It feels a little different,” Baker said.
You can understand why. For the first time in 15 years, Baker was going to take part in a baseball game in this city in something other than a Giant uniform. And so Tuesday night’s game was a “Welcome Back, Dusty” affair for the 53-year-old leader of the Cubs, returning to Pac Bell Park to manage against his old team for the first time.
There were enough awkward feelings to fill every box seat.
Baker was bitter he couldn’t say goodbye on his own terms when the Giants called off negotiating a new contract and his mood seems to have improved only slightly, given another opportunity Tuesday.
“Too late now,” Baker said. “I wanted to say goodbye then. You don’t say goodbye on your return. It doesn’t mean anything now.”
At least Baker got what he most wanted, a 4-2 victory for the Cubs. Moises Alou homered and Kerry Wood struck out eight in six strong innings.
What happened on the field probably had a difficult time equaling the sum of all the drama before. Maybe drama isn’t the right word. Soap opera sounds better.
Baker received his National League championship ring from Giant General Manager Brian Sabean in a small room next to the visiting clubhouse. A three-minute video tribute to Baker followed his exchange of lineup cards with Felipe Alou, his successor in the Giants’ dugout.
By the time it ended, Baker was already in the Cubs’ dugout, after acknowledging polite cheers with a wave of his cap.
Meanwhile, the Giants’ executive vice president, Larry Baer, was busy trying to spin the team’s position on its former manager and defrost Baker’s chilly positioning. The Giants, Baer said, have no dispute with Baker and in fact wanted to honor him, hence the video tribute.
Baker, who joined the Giants as a coach in 1988, said he likes being liked, the same as everyone else.
“Flattery is nice,” he said. “It’s better than somebody throwing rocks at you.”
But if it was supposed to be a night of healing, there may be a long way to go. Baker was asked if Tuesday night’s events closed a chapter for him.
“Probably not,” he said. “You know, rarely do chapters ever close. Most people don’t let them close.”
Baker served 10 years as the Giants’ manager, won 840 games, more than anyone except John McGraw in franchise history, and is the only National League manager to be named manager of the year three times.
Last season, the Giants won 95 games and played in the World Series for the first time since 1989, losing to the Angels in seven games.
But if Baker’s reign in the Giants dugout was mostly harmonic, the way he left was marked by controversy, acrimony and hurt feelings.
His relationship with team President Peter Magowan had already been strained, with Baker feeling largely unappreciated.
In spring training last season, Baker became irritated when Magowan said the Giants had all the pieces in place. Baker believed that put undue pressure on him, a perceived slight that Baker felt even more since he was recovering from prostate surgery.
The Giants had 10 days after the World Series to sign Baker, but they thought Baker was more interested in pursuing a job elsewhere, so with one more day until the deadline, Sabean called a news conference and said Baker wouldn’t be coming back. Baker wanted his own news conference at Pac Bell Park. The Giants preferred a restaurant close by. There was no goodbye and there still hasn’t been one.
Not long after, someone leaked to the media that Baker had experienced problems with the Internal Revenue Service. Baker was sure the Giants were responsible, intending to hurt his marketability with other teams, but Baer denied it.
Whatever the source of the leak, the damage done to Baker didn’t stop the Cubs from signing him to a four-year, $14-million contract. All he must do now is lead the Cubs out of the wilderness, where they have wandered since they last won the World Series in 1908. The Cubs haven’t had a season that marked back-to-back winning years since 1971 when Leo Durocher was the manager.
“Let’s face it, we won 67 games last year, it’s a challenge,” Baker said. “It’s not like I’m going to start hypnotizing guys and we start winning. It takes time.”
And so Baker will spend his time getting the job done, dressed in unfamiliar colors ... a blue jacket with red trim on the collar, a Cub logo on the right shoulder and again on the front.
When he thought about the new uniform, Baker said there’s nothing unusual about it at all.
“I think I look good in most anything,” he said.
It was the most positive spin of the night. Besides, there’s nothing Baker would change about his job change anyway.
“At this point, nothing. It was meant to be. Whatever’s happened, I’m glad it happened, because it’s made me a stronger person. So I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s made me seem more human to a lot of people. I’m just an everyday dude.”
In a Cub uniform.