- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Dusty Baker tried his best not to be distracted with thoughts of returning to Pacific Bell Park and doing his job from the visitors' dugout.

He couldn't help it.

He struggled to fall asleep some nights last week, and when he did, he sometimes woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the upcoming trip.

There's no question the first-year Chicago Cubs manager will be emotional during his team's three-game series against the San Francisco Giants that begins tonight. So will the Giants.

Baker's family will be in the stands when he faces his former team, the squad he led to the World Series last season. His supporters, many heartbroken by his departure, will face mixed emotions seeing Baker, with his trademark toothpick and friendly demeanor, wearing blue and leading a new team. His former players might even be a little torn.

"It woke me up one night, and I was upset with myself for letting it wake me up because we have work to do," said Baker, who has the Cubs in first place in the National League Central and is generating hope for a franchise that has made the playoffs only three times since 1945.

Baker, a three-time NL manager of the year, isn't sure what kind of reception he will receive.

"I don't know. I don't think about it, really," he said. "Either way, I've got a job to do, and I'm there on a business trip, even though I live there.

"I'll get to go to my house. I'll get to take the same route to the ballpark that I used to take. I'll probably go by the bank, grocery store, the laundry, see people I used to know. That's going to be strange, to go in that back way instead of driving around to the players' lot like I used to."

Baker is still hurt by how things ended with the Giants. Not even a World Series trip was enough to patch up the problems between Baker and owner Peter Magowan.

Baker became the first manager in nearly three decades to leave a team after reaching the World Series. Dick Williams retired after leading Oakland to the title in 1973 and was hired by the California Angels during the 1974 season.

Baker's differences with Magowan simmered for most of last season and centered on who deserved the most credit for the franchise's success. The dispute even arose during the Giants' seven-game loss to the Anaheim Angels in the World Series.

Baker was credited by many observers for his ability to handle a difficult clubhouse that included feuding stars Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, who is now with Houston.

Although many of the Giants still have warm feelings for Baker, few wanted to discuss his return.

"That was last year. This is 2003," shortstop Rich Aurilia said.

That's why this won't be just another series in the 162-game season.

"It's harder," Baker said. "It's not going to be average. … That's my home, and it was my home the last 15 years. You just don't go back home and feel nothing.

"You just have to do what you're capable of doing and hope that my team is not distracted. That's what I don't want to happen is have my team distracted by having people asking them questions about me or this and that."

The Giants lead the NL with an 18-6 record, their best start in 30 years. Baker has enjoyed seeing his former team's success because he knows he had a hand in it.

"You can't help but watch them. They're killing everyone," he said. "But I knew they were going to be good. They were good when I left. We built a foundation before I was let go from there. They added another $30 million to the payroll or whatever it is, so, yeah, they're supposed to be good."

The Giants got no-hit by Philadelphia's Kevin Millwood on Sunday in their final game of a nine-game road trip before heading home to face Baker and the Cubs.

When he packed up in San Francisco, Baker left a good-luck note for new Giants manager Felipe Alou on the desk in his former office. The gesture meant a great deal to Alou, who will see his son, Moises, an outfielder for the Cubs.

"There's a lot of people there that respect Dusty and still respect him," said Shawn Estes, a Giant-turned-Cub pitcher. "He'll be welcomed home, I think, as a hero. I think that people know it was well documented, the situation there. People know he left on his own will, but in a way he would have liked to stay."

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