Dusty Baker came to the Cubs after a successful career managing the San Francisco Giants. His signing signaled the Cubs were serious about trying to win. Two years later, not everyone is enamored with the job he has done. Here he answers his critics, reflects on the past, and looks forward to the future.
The Heckler: You’ve mentioned before that last season was probably your toughest in baseball. Besides the injuries, what else do you think went wrong last year?
Dusty Baker: The injuries number one—that’s what makes it tough. Number two—all the scrutiny, off the field stuff, stuff with Stoney. I don’t even like soap operas. Life’s too short for that. I like peace and harmony. You come out and do your job. That’s all I want. Just to manage. I love baseball, do my job, and make a good living for my family. All the other stuff – I don’t need to be in the paper anymore. I don’t need to be quoted anymore. People ask me stuff and I try to give them an honest answer, and it seems honesty in modern times is not necessarily the best policy.
TH: During the off-season, you had a chance to reflect on last year. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
DB: No. I don’t think anybody realizes it when you’re losing guys left and right like we were; we held together real good. When you lose Remlinger early, and Borowski and Gonzo [Alex Gonzalez], losing Wood, and you don’t have Prior early. I’m proud of our guys. We just ran out of gas. People say we choked, but we ran out of gas. There’s a difference. When you’re struggling the whole year and fighting, fighting, fighting to get whatever you could at that time. There’s never an easy period where everything goes right. There was never a real bad period until that last week, and there was never an exceptionally good period either. Our guys were scratching and clawing. The hurricane really hurt us, too. As much as it hurt Florida the week before, it hurt us the week after. The hurricane affected a lot of people, including us.
TH: What do you think is the most difficult part of your job? Is it managing egos, knowing when to pull the starter and what reliever to put in during certain situations, or is it something else?
DB: Those things are part of the game. You’re never going to be right all of the time, no matter what you do. You just don’t want to get in a fifty-fifty situation or else you might as well just flip a coin. In my opinion, if you’re right 75 or 80% of the time, you’re way ahead of the game. We’re at the mercy of how the players perform. If they perform well, everybody looks good. You’re only as good as your players. It’s up to us to direct them and keep them positive. Probably the most difficult part of the whole situation is dealing every day with negatives. You’re constantly bombarded by negatives, what you didn’t do, what you should have done. There’s a lot of people that seem to think that they know more than you. I’ve been at this for 36 years. Including my coaches, we’ve probably got 200 years worth of experience here. That’s probably the most difficult part of the job. I wish I didn’t have to interview every day. After the game, say what happened during the game. Say your reasons why this happened or why you didn’t do this. There’s always a reason. The most difficult part is the amount of people that cover the game. It used to be just reporting the game, but now there is so much competition for the stories. You’ve got ESPN and ESPN Radio. You have Fox and Fox radio. You’ve got a number of talk shows that weren’t there before. MLB has its own. There’s only a limited amount of stuff that you can report on.
TH: How would you compare the media scrutiny in Chicago compared to San Francisco?
DB: Like I said, there’s a lot more competition. San Francisco’s a lot more laid back. There’s probably a lot more negative press than I’m used to. This is a major market with the same amount of things to report on. That’s the major difference.
TH: Do you think today’s players are more difficult to manage than when you played the game?
DB: No, not really. Thoroughbred horses have always been tough to manage. It’s the fun part. I know them as well as anybody because I was one of them. I wasn’t a great player, but I was a good player. I played on teams that had major egos on the team. As long as the ego doesn’t get in the way of what we’re trying to do, and just as long as there’s no envy or jealousy involved at all.
TH: Are you more comfortable using players that you have seen perform before than rookies or players that came from the American League?
DB: No, my comfort zone is whoever can play, but it takes awhile to know where to put a guy. I was taught by Roger Craig when I was a coach to try to put a guy in a position where he’ll most likely succeed. You have to let a guy sort of play, and play his way in or out in order for you to have that knowledge of your player. I don’t care if a guy comes from the American League or is a rookie. The only two things I haven’t had major awards with are Cy Young award winners and rookie of the year. I’d love to have a rookie of the year. Quite frankly, I’d like someday to have a whole team full of young guys. Get them from the beginning and teach them how we think the game should be played. What’s more difficult is when you get guys from different organizations where different things are stressed or not stressed. If you can get them all young like the Minnesota Twins, they come up from the minor leagues and they know the rules and they know how the Twins want them to play ball. It’s like getting a young pup and training him versus getting an older dog and trying to retrain him. That’s probably the most difficult thing to do.
TH: Would you rather manage a team of sluggers, or a team capable of playing small ball and the speed game?
DB: I’d rather have both. If you’re going to win, you’ve gotta have both. There’s going to be a time when you need small ball, and a time when you don’t play close games, and there’s a time when you’re going to need a three-run homer. The epitome of the teams I played on were like the Dodgers. We had speed, power, defense, pitching and a bullpen. I’d rather have a balanced team, but you’re at the mercy of who’s available. You’re at the mercy of who you have in the organization, and the general manager’s at the mercy of who’s available some times versus who you really want or who you need. I believe in both games. You’ve got to have both games. I think in terms of basketball a lot. You’ve got to have fast break ability along with a half court ability to play offense. It depends what you need at that point in time. You play what you need.
TH: How would you compare the strengths of this year’s team to last year, and do you think it’s a stronger team?
DB: A lot depends on our pitching and the health of Prior and Wood. And a lot depends on the bullpen. It’s hard to say right now how you compare, because last year you had a full year to determine what you had or didn’t have, and this year, you haven’t played yet. You don’t know how Wood’s going to do. You don’t know if Nomar is going to stay healthy. You don’t know if Burnitz is going to perform well, and you don’t know if Hawk (LaTroy Hawkins) is going to be better. There’s just so much you don’t know right now, so it’s impossible to compare. In 1993, my first year with the Giants (who didn’t make the playoffs despite a record of 103-59), we had speed with Willie McGee, Robby Thompson, Darren Lewis and Royce Clayton. But we also had power with Matt Williams and Will Clark and those guys. We had great catching and defense with Kirt Manwaring, and we had four Gold Gloves on that team. Barry Bonds provided speed, power and defense. That’s the kind of team you want.
TH: There’s been a lot of talk in town this year, for instance on sports radio, that you have to win or you may be out of a job. Considering that you have raised expectations leading the team to its first back-to-back winning seasons in over 30 years and being just five outs from the World Series in 2003: Do you think that’s fair?
DB: It don’t matter. I’ve got two years on my contract. I’ve done pretty good considering when I got here we won 65 games. If they think they can get somebody better than me, that’s the way it is. That’s how this job goes. I don’t manage for people. I don’t manage for talk radio guys. If my job is in jeopardy —that’s up to Jim Hendry and Andy MacPhail. I give my all, all the time, and if it doesn’t work, one thing’s for sure: I’m probably not going to have a problem getting a job.
TH: Do you know how much longer you want to manage?
DB: I don’t know. I gave myself seven years, but I don’t know. It depends on my family situation and how long I want to be away from my son and my wife. There’s a lot of variables here. I was in a duck blind with George Seifert three years ago and he told me not to sell myself short and don’t cut your career short if you don’t have to. I know I don’t want to be managing when I’m seventy years old. I know that. I’ve only had one summer off, in ’94 [the strike year], since I was 18. There’s still a lot of life left.
TH: You’ve been known throughout your career as a manager that players loved to play for. It seems the only problem you had occurred last year with Sammy. What do you think happened with that?
DB: That didn’t happen until the end of the year. I didn’t know how disgruntled he was about moving in the lineup. You can’t satisfy everybody. I tried as hard as I could not to get into that situation with Sammy because I saw what happened with him and Baylor. I remember coming in here one time and they had a 1-800-who do you want to get rid of -Baylor or Sammy? I felt badly for Don and did everything in my power not to get in that situation, which didn’t work, but you can’t satisfy everybody. You try to be as honest as possible. I’ve got a job to do and that’s how it is.
TH: You mentioned being honest. You’ve often spoken your mind, and you’ve been burned for it at times.
DB: It’s just my opinion. Just like Van Morrison said, “Just because it’s your opinion doesn’t mean it’s etched in gold.” It’s nothing more than your opinion. And I’m not going to change my opinion to satisfy other people. There’s always going to be somebody dissatisfied. What I will do, because I don’t need that grief; I’ll just pull in the reins and keep my opinions to myself.
TH: So you are going to pull in the reins a bit this year when it comes to being as honest as you have been before?
DB: Yeah. It doesn’t do any good. Then you have to justify why you said this or why you feel like that. I mean why you feel like that is … that’s how you feel. You can’t change your outlook on life or how you feel about things.