CHICAGO — Sunday afternoon, Dusty Baker sat inside the same low-ceiling room he was introduced in more than 14 years ago when he was named manager of the Chicago Cubs.
This time, Baker is back in an auxiliary Wrigley Field room as the manager of the Washington Nationals, who are currently in a tussle with his former team. A stunning and electric eighth inning Saturday had squared the best-of-five National League Division Series between the two 1-1 before Baker arrived back in Chicago where he spent four news-filled years as the Cubs manager from 2003-06.
That period hardened Baker. It also attached a distinct narrative to him, namely that he overused starting pitchers. The idea continues to float around more than a decade since he and the Cubs parted ways. Mix that with his first season in Chicago when Steve Bartman became infamous and the Cubs were oh-so-close, and Baker’s truncated period at Wrigley Field has the feel of a comet.
Baker was hired after bringing the San Francisco Giants to the World Series the year before. Chicago general manager Jim Hendry was told Baker was willing to listen to other managerial options despite the Giants’ success. The two came to an agreement, the Cubs had a new manager, and, for the first time since 1993 when he took over in San Francisco, Baker was forced to relocate.
The first season was historic and, in Hendry’s view, also damning. The Cubs won the National League Central for the first time since 1989. They advanced to the National League Championship Series where Bartman’s reach of a lifetime cost them an out. A fantastical unraveling followed.
That season also set the bar for expectations around Baker’s time with the Cubs.
“We made it real clear losing in Chicago was no longer tolerated,” Hendry said in a recent phone interview. “We both put ourselves out there; that was the priority. It wasn’t just to do OK.”
The following season, Chicago was expected to contend again. Slugger Derek Lee joined the team after a trade. Greg Maddux, nearing the end of his career, was signed as a free agent. Young pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were All-Stars in 2003. What was ahead for them filled Cubs fans with giddiness.
The season instead became a mess. It began Prior’s run of injuries that would derail his career and leave Baker forever criticized for how many pitches he allowed Prior to throw. The same season started Wood’s derailment, too. He eventually became a reliever after multiple surgeries. The magic of 2003 quickly turned into the injuries of 2004, the slippage of 2005 and the 96 losses of 2006. Baker was then dismissed.
“I certainly never put the blame on Dusty Baker for the last couple years we worked together,” Hendry said. “Know what I mean? Sometimes things happen. If Wood and Prior never got hurt, who knows what would have happened?”
But, they did, creating a tale that has chased Baker to this day. Even this season, when his usage of starting pitchers was high to open the year because of a faulty bullpen and a layer of old-school preference for starters going deep, mentions of Wood and Prior were still prominent along with mentions of Baker. At least with those who often criticized him.
In August of 2016, Prior wrote a story for the web site “The Players Tribune” that was titled, “I don’t blame Dusty Baker.” Wood has also exonerated Baker. For Hendry, blaming Baker is borderline nonsense.
“That’s so unfair,” Hendry said. “That’s like blaming the [New York] Mets manager [Terry Collins] for the pitchers going down this year. If Mark Prior and Kerry Wood feel the way they do about Dusty Baker, and Jim Hendry does, that’s all you need to know. What more testament do you need than what Prior and Wood said?”
Baker’s departure from Chicago was turbulent. The “In Dusty we trusty” signs that populated Wrigleyville windows during Baker’s first season were removed with haste. He was vehemently criticized at the end.
“What comes to my mind is how well we started off and how thing certainly could have been differently,” Baker said. “One pitch, one out, one hit, one something. And then how it ended on not very good terms. Also, what my time in Chicago did for me and my family on the positive side, on the financial side, on the baseball side, and on the learning side. Because you learn about people, you learn how to handle good times and bad times. I actually gained more strength during bad times than I did in the good times. Not a whole bunch fazes me after I left Chicago. It was a little rough.”
Baker joked last week that he has personal history with several teams in the playoffs. He played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the same club that eliminated the Nationals in last season’s NLDS. The New York Yankees beat him in the World Series back when he was a player in L.A. He has friends in Cleveland and even some still in Chicago. So, it’s easy for him to make this personal. Especially with the Cubs.