By In Baseball

Getting Dusty in here

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.

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34 Responses to Getting Dusty in here

  1. tomemos says:

    I love Dusty, but did he “build” these terrific teams? Of course not—almost no manager builds teams in the era of free agency and amateur drafts. I’m not just being pedantic—Dusty won lots of games in large part because he was brought in to manage winning teams. The Giants in 93, the Cubs in 2003, the recent Reds—no one thinks these would not have been winning teams without Dusty Baker, right? Whether he helped them win, or kept them from winning, more games than they otherwise would have is still an open question.

    • tomemos says:

      For instance, Joe, you mention that “The year before he came to San Francisco the Giants lost 90 games. His first year they won 103.” Well, that was also Barry Bonds’s first year there. Who added more wins?

    • Travis Cook says:

      Speaking as a Reds fan, I can safely say that I am confident that the Reds would have had far more losing seasons without Dusty than they did with him. That team is a vacuous collection of OBP underperformers sandwiched around a great hitter and some truly decent ones, with decent to mediocre starters and your annual collection of solid bullpen arms. Besides, somebody else would have Chapman starting, where he would have gone something like 8-9 in 24 starts with a 4.12 ERA before blowing out his elbow throwing too many sliders.But then again, those are just my thoughts/opinions.

    • tomemos says:

      Well, how much value did Chapman provide the Reds as Dusty used him, that is, flatly refusing to bring him in except in a save situation? Like I say, I love Dusty but I don’t think most people would point to Chapman as one of his masterstrokes.

    • NMark W says:

      Take Dusty Baker…..Yes, just take him away from that Cincy Redlegs dugout. By the time that final week came around it appeared that no one on that team liked anyone else in that dugout or was having any enjoyment playing the game. Losing your final 6 games of the year (2 to the little Metsies!) when much of your team is reasonably healthy is no way to show upper management that everything is running smoothly.

  2. Jake Bucsko says:

    Clint Hurdle took over the Rockies in the middle of the 2002 season, a franchise that had only been to the playoffs once, and five years later managed them to the World Series. Less than two years later he was fired. Clint Hurdle took over a 105 loss Pirates team, improved their wins to 72, 79, then 94 this year. The Pirates have a reasonable chance of upsetting the Cardinals and advancing to the NLCS, he is the toast of the town, and he is likely to be named Manager of the Year. The worst thing he can do is to keep the Pirates decent for the next few years without winning a championship, as that is pretty much guaranteed to get him fired.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Mike Smith of the Falcons took a former sad sack franchise that had never had back to back winning seasons & turned them into a perennial contender. The 1-3 start this year already has the lunatic fringe ready to fire him. But realistically, a bad season this year and no rebound next year could get him fired…. even though he is, by far, the best coach they’ve ever had.

  3. Kansas City says:

    Sounds about right on Baker, but the one game wildcard playoff is not the best appraoch. They should have 3 wild card teams and play a “Wild Card Showdown” double elimination tournament. It would just take 3 days (at most) and would be great fun and drama. Also give the hard earned wild card berths more reward that a one game playoff, while creating even more drama.

  4. Kansas City went 11-3 against Tampa Bay and Boston this year. If they could have just won the AL Central and the got past Oakland, a case could be made that they then deserved a free pass to the World Series.

  5. Very few fans credit managers for management, which is exactly as you say: getting the best out of one’s employees. I remember seeing a study some years ago that suggested veteran hitters performed better under Dusty Baker.

    That said, watching him manage a good team from outside could drive fans crazy.

    Astute commentary today as always, Joe.

  6. Jack says:

    Chuck Knox was another one in the NFL – .559 winning percentage, division titles with three different teams, winning coach of the year with each of them – but was 7-11 in the playoffs with no Super Bowl trips. He didn’t get fired until his second stop with the Rams, when he didn’t succeed, but he otherwise knew when he was about to be let go and left town early.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Ground Chuck got run out of town by the media the first time around. The second time, he didn’t retain Jeff Fisher, who was their bright young D Coordinator, because Fisher was a threat to him as a potential replacement… The Rams were grooming Fisher to be their next coach, but thought he wasn’t quite ready. Still not sure why idiot John Shaw let that happen. Knox then set offensive football back 20 years and hired a crony defensive line coach to handle the defense. Their horrible play and owner/prostitute Georgia Frontiere led to the Rams leaving for St Louis…. Despite the rams long tradition and loyal fan base. I wondered after the fact if Knox was hired to ruin the team and turn off the fans so Frontiere could justify leaving for a big cash grab in St Louis.

    • Mark says:

      Rob Smith – Great paragraph! If I may add something; Knox leaves after 1978 and the Rams hire George Allen, who becomes perhaps the first NFL coach to be fired in PRESEASON. And then Ray Malavasi takes over, has a slightly above average season (9-7), and still makes the Super Bowl and comes damn close to winning it. My question is: is Ray Malavasi the most nondescript coach to ever make the Super Bowl?

    • clashfan says:

      Rob Smith: I’m sorry, I don’t understand: How is Georgia Frontiere a prostitute?

    • Rob Smith says:

      How about Chuck Fairbanks? Yeah, but as a Rams fan, we generally viewed Malavasi as overmatched as a head coach. The miracle play against the Cowboys (the Rams actually beat the Cowboys with Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and the Doomsday Defense in a playoff game??), Feragamo to Waddie got the Rams into the NFC Championship game against a mediocre Bucs team…. and the 9-0 ensuing final score showed the Rams weren’t that great. But getting to the Super Bowl? Nobody expected that. We all expected the Rams to get killed in the Super Bowl against the Steelers, but the Rams were actually up in the 4th quarter until that crazy amazing pass from Bradshaw to Stallworth as he’s getting absolutely hammered by a pass rusher (I forget who, but the Rams defense was very stout). One foot….heck, even six inches, either way and that pass gets broken up & the Rams may well win that game.

      But yeah, probably Malavasi would be on that short list. The media was brutal with him. He wasn’t good in front of the microphones at all.

      George Allen is another interesting guy. He’s another one of those guys that brings instant credibility and improvement to teams he coaches. He did goofy things that seemed to work, like rewarding a good practice with ice cream for everyone. I remember one player with the Redskins, it might have been Dexter Manley, if not it was a similar sized D Lineman, saying that it’s crazy, but Allen has you believing that the best thing in the world will be to get ice cream at the end of the game.

      Allen, in his 80s, was the coach at Long Beach State the year they reinstated their football program. In the first year, they won their last game to have a winning record (which was quite an accomplishement in their first year). The story has it that he had gatorade dumped on him and he ended up dying because of it. Probably urban myth, but it was out there.

      Allen was definitely a my way or the highway type of guy. So, he definitely rubbed some people the wrong way. He wasn’t all that popular with Rams fans since he had, in our view, squandered some championship efforts when he had the Fearsome Foursome and Roman Gabriel. So, I think when there were problems with the veteran players in the preseason (not appreciating the Allen long practices), during round 2, he clashed with owner Carroll Rosenbloom…. which led to his firing.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Clashfan: sorry, I meant to say Georgia was a pole dancer. You’ll note that LA Rams fans have no user for her at all since she moved the team to St Louis. BTW: she was married 7-8 times and was Carroll Rosenblooms mistress for 10 years before he dumped his wife and married her. If you don’t call that a prostitute, then OK. My definition might be a tad loose, though thematically correct.

    • clashfan says:

      Have you looked into the sex lives of all team owners? I’m still unclear on how her personal life has any bearing on her merits or flaws as an NFL owner.

  7. Eric Hanauer says:

    Baker is too much a players’ manager. After a couple of years, the inmates wind up running the asylum. That’s what happened to the Cubs in 2004, when they blew a playoff bid in the last week and players were fighting with the press and among themselves. It seems to have happened to the Reds this year with Phillips’ mouthing off and whatever else happened behind the scenes.

  8. rpmcsweeney says:

    In some respects, a manager’s/coach’s whole raison for etring is to be fired. Or, more broadly, to be the sacrificial lamb. They handle the media so that players aren’t pestered. They fill out line up cards, creating the illusion that they—rather than the front office—control the composition of the team. And if something goes wrong, if they underachieve and fall just short of expectations, they walk the plank. You can’t fire the owners, and it’s a lot harder to replace Joey Votto (or even a player a lot worse than Joey Votto) than it is to find a new manager.

    I’m sure that good managers can add value, and bad ones can subtract it. But ultimately, their most important role is as the fall guy.

  9. Managers who never won a championship and didn’t get sacked: Marv Levy.

  10. Rob Smith says:

    I’ll never forget Dusty handing out a Game Ball in game #6 against the Angels. Early celebrations just invite disaster. That, and having his very young son acting as bat boy in the game and nearly getting tangled up in a live play. His approach to those events showed some very questionable decision making…. and I don’t believe he ever admitted either of those brain farts were even possibly bad ideas. Still, he didn’t serve up the pitches that allowed five runs to score in the last two innings.

    I think Dusty does restore order to the clubhouse & I’m sure he garners respect. So, in a bad situation with a losing team he probably has a calming effect that allows the team to improve towards respectability. But after that, a Manager needs to exercise very good decision making and make sure not to hurt the team. I know that every Manager can be second guessed, but high profile gaffes will get you fired quickly.

    Collapses at the end of the season…. that’s multiple collapses will also get you fired quickly. Usually, with collapses, there are multiple potential scapegoats. It takes poor performances from multiple players to fuel a meltdown. So, rather than sort that out, most fans will blame the manager, who probably had a couple of questionable decisions mixed in…. questionable meaning “it didn’t work out”.

    Going back to Gene Mauch with the 1986 Angels Donnie Moore collapse, every decision Mauch made was logical. Bringing in a lefthander to face Rich Gedman, who had two doubles already, made a lot of sense. When the lefthander, Lucas I believe, hit Gedman with a pitch, that’s not Mauch’s fault. When he brings in Donnie Moore who blows two fast balls by Henderson (who is not close to catching up) then decides to throw a splitter, which he hangs, that’s not Mauch’s fault either. But he took the blame for that series imploding. So it goes.

    Dusty’s getting what Managers get. Like Sparky Anderson once said, “Managers are hired to be fired”.

  11. Mike Grayson says:

    I like Dusty Baker, the man. I met him once, and he was very nice. I also listened to him before every game on the Reds radio network. But it was time for him to go.

    The real downfall of Dusty began when he insisted the last 5 or 6 regular season games were not ‘must win’ games. Marty Brenneman and Jeff Brantley blasted him for this on the radio. When the Reds lost the last 5 regular season games AT HOME, fans were angry. Had they won 3 of the last 5, the one game playoff would have been in Cincinnati, where the Reds play much better than on the road.

    Over the last 6 games(against the Mets and Pirates), the Reds looked terrible. No life, ho hitting (under 2 runs per game), poor pitching, and mediocre fielding. There seemed to be a real lack of leadership. Most of the year, the team lacked the spark of previous years: few come from behind wins, and just less spirit than even the 2012 team. The Reds played Buntaplaooza way too much and gave away countless outs. Billy Hamilton didn’t get enough starts despite how cold Ludwick was.

    Some of the problem goes to Walt Jocketty (who failed to block the Pirates pickup of Byrd). But something needed to change, and I agree that Dusty’s days as the Red’s manager needed to end.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Late season or playoff collapses get you fired. When the fans, the players, the GM and the owner are pissed off, guess who gets the blame. Ask Gene Mauch or Terry Francona. Freddi Gonzalez is very lucky that the Braves front office prefers consistency and continuity & doesn’t use the manager as the scapegoat. Otherwise, he’d have been gone too.

  12. I would love it if the Royals fired Yost and hired Baker. I would love to be sitting here 5 years from now complaining that the Royals can’t seem to get over the hump and win the World Series. Of course, the last time the Royals had that problem, they fired Whitey Herzog who took St. Louis to 3 World Series…

  13. LargeBill says:

    John Cooper at Ohio State can be added to the list of coaches that was canned for not winning at the end of the season.

  14. Chris Smith says:

    Living in Greater Cincinnati, it kind of sickens me to see Dusty go. He took over a team that was ripe to be decent….Votto was starting to come of age, Bruce was still just a baby, and Phillips was in his prime. Everything else about the team was built by Dusty. Bringing in Scott Rolen for some leadership and Jonny Gomes for some fire. Later, bringing in Choo for some life in center field (though probably holding onto the other guy too long.)

    But remember how they stunk for years before him. They always seemed to be just below where they needed to be to play winning baseball. He made it happen. This is a small market. You’re only hope is to field a consistently winning team and pray that they get a few good bounces to get to the World Series. Dusty made it happen here.

  15. Eric Simon says:

    “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…”

    You are way off on this one; it is obvious that Dusty didn’t ‘command respect.’ Simply look at the incident with childish, petulant hotshot Brandon Phillips bursting into Baker’s office during a media session and berating a reporter with expletive-laden personal insults, because the reporter had the audacity to point out that it was not good to have a guy with a .310 OBP hitting at the top of the order. Dusty did nothing. Later, during another media session, Phillips again berated the reporter with expletive-laden personal insults, and again, Baker did nothing, other than to say “that’s between you all.” A manager who ‘commands respect’ would have reacted differently. Furthermore, these incidents would have never happened in the first place if Baker truly ‘commanded respect’. You are way off on this one…

  16. Herb Smith says:

    Eric, I disagree with you. Dusty’s job is to protect Brandon Phillips (and all his players). THAT’S how you command respect in the clubhouse, by having your player’s backs. Can you imagine how much hatred would have emanated from Phillips had Dusty thrown him under a bus in that incident?

    I’m not defending Phillips’s asinine actions. But no “player’s manager on earth would’ve have taken that opportunity to “teach him a lesson.”

    • Eric Simon says:

      As I said, aside from Baker’s response, the simple fact that Phillips did it in the first place, on 2 separate occasions, is proof that Baker doesn’t ‘command respect’.

  17. Scooter says:

    This is a terrific post. (By which I mean, I agree with you.) Well said.

    One thing you said caught my eye. “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.” When I read this, I thought about ProvenClosers(tm). That’s the whole argument for them, right? That losing when you could have won is crushing? At least when a ProvenCloser fails, you know you’ve taken your best shot.

    I think sometimes we’re too quick to dismiss something just because we cannot — and never will be able to — quantify it. But we should remind ourselves sometimes that the psychological impact is real, and it does have some value.

    Anyway, it’s just a thought. Mostly I wanted to say thanks for writing this.

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