Here’s something to think about: A fantastic baseball manager with a fantastic team will lose more games in a month than John Wooden lost his last eight seasons as basketball coach at UCLA. He will lose more games before the All-Star break than Vince Lombardi lost in his entire career with the Green Bay Packers. He will lose more games in a season than Nick Saban has lost as a college football coach, more than Bill Self has lost at Kansas, many more than Roger Federer has lost at grand slam tournaments in his long and marvelous career.
In other words, a baseball manager always will lose enough games to give you a reason to fire him. It’s the nature of the game.
Friday, the Cincinnati Reds rid themselves of manager Dusty Baker. It’s probably fair to say that, in the grand scheme of things, this won’t upset too many people. Oh, Dusty’s a good guy, he commands respect, and, as if to amplify that point, Jon Heyman writes that in his last days with Cincinnati he was trying to protect his hitting coach Brook Jacoby.
But from a baseball perspective, Dusty Baker had a fatal flaw as a manager. And that flaw had almost nothing to do with the things people always SAY about Dusty — you know, he’s still managing by The Book (copyright 1907, written by anonymous, in 49th printing), he’s often been on the crime scene when brilliant young pitchers’ arms fell off, he treats on-base percentage with the disdain that many save for Congress.
No, from my viewpoint, sabermetrics did not doom Dusty, at least not directly. It was something else, something more base. Dusty Baker — like Marty Schottenheimer, like George Karl, like Eddie Sutton — had the exasperating knack of building terrific teams that did not win championships. And sooner or later — usually sooner — time just runs out on those kinds of coaches and manager.
Look at Baker’s career. Twenty years. Eight 90-win seasons. Three Manager of the Year awards. The year before he came to San Francisco the Giants lost 90 games. His first year they won 103. The year before he came to Chicago, the Cubs lost 95 games. His first year, they won 88, and were a clean inning away from the World Series. The seven years before he came to Cincinnati, the Reds had losing records. In his third season, the Reds won 90 and topped the National League Central.
How has he done it? I’ve always thought that there are OBVIOUS things that a baseball manager does, the stuff everyone talks about. He makes out the lineup. He handles the bullpen. He talks with the press. He constructs a fundamental personality for the team by how he employs baseball strategies — you know, base running decisions, to sacrifice or not to sacrifice, defensive shifts, intentional walks, and so on. These are the things that prompts people to call into talk radio shows and comment below baseball stories. Dusty just wasn’t especially great at these things. He tended to say quirky things on-base percentage might just mean clogging up the bases, and he tended to leave starting pitchers in longer than anyone else, and he loved the pitch-out. He cut against the times. Let’s face it, he drove a lot of us nuts.
But there are less obvious things about the way a manager carries himself, the atmosphere he helps create, the respect he commands in the clubhouse, the confidence he inspires. Think of your favorite boss. Was that person your favorite because she was a genius who made breathtakingly brilliant strategic moves that made your business a huge success. Maybe. It’s also possible you just like and admire that boss. She shielded you from the rantings of the home office. She made sure you got extra time off when your father was sick. She seemed to sense your moods and say the right thing to get you through the rough days. She did not hold grudges after disagreements. She made sure you got credit when things went right and made sure to take the blame when they did not.
These are difficult things to capture and measure. There are always arguments about how much team chemistry contributes to winning (and how much winning contributes to team chemistry). But I think most players would say they liked playing for Dusty Baker. He was an excellent player himself, and his players would often talk about how he understood what they were going through, had a good grasp of the season’s rhythms, he didn’t try to control them or place pointless restrictions just to flex his own muscles. How much of a difference does this make in actual wins and losses? We don’t have a way to know that yet, maybe we never will. His teams through the years won 173 more times than they lost, and we’re not talking about powerhouse teams like the Yankees or Dodgers who can sometimes outspend their mistakes. There was something there.
But, of course, his teams never won the World Series. And they came close. That’s the crushing part. They came close. The 2002 Giants led 5-0 in what would have been the clinching World Series game against the Angels. He left after that season. The 2003 Cubs, well, that was the Bartman game. The 2012 Reds had a two-games-to-none lead in their best-of-five against San Francisco and lost three straight — one of them in extra innings.
And this is a sports truth: You just can’t keep coming close and losing. It crushes the spirit. It breaks bonds. It puts everyone in a grumpy mood. Marty Schottenheimer coached the Cleveland Browns to four consecutive playoffs including two AFC Championship games, but the Browns lost could not break through and Marty was canned. Everyone at the time said it was ego. But I think, looking back, it was exhaustion. He went to Kansas City and took the Chiefs to playoffs seven times in his 10 seasons, but no Super Bowls and finally he burned out and quit. He went to San Diego and turned perhaps the NFL’s worst team into one of the best teams in the NFL. In his last year, they went 14-2. They did not go to the Super Bowl. Marty was canned again.
Take Charley Dressen. He managed the Brooklyn Dodgers to 97 wins, 96 wins and 105 wins his three years as manager. The last two they went to the World Series. These were Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer teams. They lost both World Series and Dressen was let go. The reason given was that Dressen wanted a multiyear contract and the Dodgers did not give out such deals — well, there’s always another reason because saying “We were good but not good enough” doesn’t really satisfy anybody. I suspect — and other have written — that Walter O’Malley had just tired of Dressen’s act because they fell short. If the Dodgers had won a World Series, I think they would have put up with the act.
Take George Karl. He coached in Seattle for seven years, going 384-150 and reaching one NBA Finals. No championships. He left for Milwaukee for more money. His teams made the playoffs four out of five years and reached one conference finals. No championships. He was fired. He went to Denver where his teams went 423-257 and made the playoffs every season, this after Denver missed the playoffs eight of nine seasons before Karl arrived. Again, no titles. Karl was kicked the curb.
It’s the same old song. On the surface, it’s absurd that the Reds would boot Dusty Baker essentially for losing a one-game playoff to Pittsburgh. Heck, one game playoffs are absurd. They cut against the very rhythms of baseball. Anyone can beat anyone in one game. I mean look at a few series match-ups for the last five World Series champions:
2012 — World Series champ Giants record against 93-loss Marlins: 2-5.
2011 — World Series champ Cardinals against 91-loss Padres: 3-3.
2010 — World Series champ Giants against 81-81 Oakland A’s: 3-3.
2009 — World Series champ Yankees against 103 -loss Nationals: 1-2.
2008 — World Series champ Phillies against 90-loss Giants: 3-3.
A one-game playoff is a dreadful way to determine which team is better. Heck, a three-out-of-five series isn’t a great way either. But Bud Selig and the baseball owners determined — rightly, I suspect — that most baseball fans like these short and dramatic and erratic showdowns, one game for all the marbles, three wins for the right to advance, win or lose, stand of fall, do or die. And so this is the way the game is played, and the Reds lost to the Pirates, and Dusty Baker was shown the door. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?
It’s not exactly fair. But it is the way of the world. Dusty Baker says he wants to manage again, and I’m guessing that will happen. See, there’s a clear baseball pattern. A terrible team wants to become respectable. When you are under a rock, the biggest thing you can dream of is seeing the sun. Respectability. Look: Kansas City this year, after two decades of ineptness, won 86 games and was sort of competitive for the playoffs. When it ended general manager Dayton Moore said, “In a small way I feel like we’ve won the World Series.” That was a major mistake in 2013, Moore deeply regretted saying it, and the comment was instantly and emphatically mocked.
I have to admit that while I find the mocking amusing, I know what Moore meant and I think everyone else does too. He meant that after all the lousiness, all the plans that went awry, all the Jose Guillen and Jason Kendall acquisitions, all the wasted hopes and close losses and disastrous decisions that sounded perfectly logical in a conference room — the Royals were finally not a joke in 2013. They won more than they lost. They played some reasonably important games. After so many years of awfulness, I’m sure just getting off the mat and heading in the right direction felt like a mammoth achievement, and maybe you can forgive Moore and the Royals for raising a glass and having a small celebration.
Or maybe you can’t forgive them — because that’s what happens. Respectability is never really enough for people. Once you get there, you want a championship. You need a championship. You begin to resent respectability, see it as a noose. Someone will hire Dusty Baker to make the team respectable. It could be Seattle any day now. It might even be the Royals should they get off to a terrible start in 2014. And there’s a pretty good chance Dusty Baker WILL make the team respectable. He’s done it before.
And after that? Well, it’s fair to say that “after that” has never been Dusty Baker’s favorite time.