Baker wiser from years at Wrigley
Skipper focusing on Reds season as he returns to old haunt
CHICAGO -- There were lots of hugs and smiles exchanged as Cubs players welcomed their former manager, Dusty Baker, to Wrigley Field on Tuesday night.
Now in charge of the Cincinnati Reds, Baker made his first trip to Wrigley since he left after the 2006 season.
"Whatever happened, you can't bring it back," Baker said. "I'm trying to look forward, that's what I'm trying to do with everything in my life. I'm trying to be as happy as I can, and not let anything or anybody make you unhappy. You have to live with yourself and you have to be happy. Life's far too short."
Baker led the Cubs to the Central Division title in his first year in 2003, and the team was five outs away from getting to the World Series before being ousted by the Florida Marlins. They finished with a plus .500 record in 2004, but struggled with injuries the next two seasons, and management chose not to renew Baker's contract after their 96-loss season in 2006.
He spent 2007 doing commentary for ESPN. Meanwhile, the Cubs went on a $300 million spending spree prior to that season and hired Lou Piniella as manager. Baker has moved on.
"You've got to leave that back there," Baker said. "You can play 'what ifs' all your life. You can say, 'What if I married this girl, and not that one.' I try not to play 'what ifs.' I've got a job to do in Cincinnati. Let's face it, I've got a big job. We haven't had a winning season in seven years. That's what I'm concentrating on is turning things around."
Baker said he almost didn't accept the Reds job because his father is ill back in California. Now, he appreciates things that he might not have appreciated before, and says his four years with the Cubs were a positive experience.
"I wouldn't change anything," Baker said. "It's made me a better, stronger, more powerful person."
A long time ago, Piniella and Baker had talked about managing when Baker was a hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants.
"He asked me when was I going to get a managing job, and he says, 'You'd be a good manager, and I'm surprised you haven't gotten the opportunity yet,'" Baker said, recalling the conversation when Piniella was then the Reds manager. "He said, 'Stick with it.' I remember that conversation big time. Me and Lou, we've been cool for a long time, even when we played against each other, Dodgers, Yankees [in the World Series]. He's a guy I respected as a ballplayer and a manager."
The feeling is mutual.
"Dusty's a good man, and a darn good manager," Piniella said. "I've always felt that way."
It had to be a little strange being in the visitor's clubhouse, and putting on the road grays at Wrigley, not the home white uniform. Piniella went through that when he returned to Seattle as Tampa Bay's manager.
"You get used to it," Piniella said. "The first time, especially, it's a different feeling."
It was tough to predict what the Wrigley Field crowd would do Tuesday night. Baker said he expected to hear some boos.
"Some, yeah," he said. "I still have to do my job. I've been booed before. I've been cheered more than I've been booed."
Baker found out in the Chicago seventh. He was greeted by boos from the crowd of 39,130 when he went to the mound to remove pitcher Jared Burton.
"I don't think any manager should be booed," Piniella said. "Look, managers all want to do what's best, and they want to win. That's what they get paid for, that's what they take pride in. Sometimes things don't work. I don't see any reason why Dusty should be booed. He came in here and won a division. He got the team to one game from going to a World Series. The next year, they had a nice run, and then things went a little backwards. Is that the manager's fault? I don't think so. They had a lot of injuries here."
Baker is the first Cubs manager to post back-to-back winning seasons since Leo Durocher did in 1971-72, and he is the first to be rehired by another team since Jim Marshall, who managed the Cubs from 1974-76, and then skippered Oakland in 1979.
"He was a good manager -- he is a good manager," Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez said. "He's a winner."
Is it fair to blame Baker for what happened in 2005 and '06?
"I don't think it was the manager's fault," Ramirez said. "The players have to get it done on the field."
Piniella is trying to do the same thing every other Cubs manager tried to do in Chicago.
"Obviously, everybody who comes here has the same thing in mind and that's to end the drought," Piniella said, acknowledging the Cubs' now 100-year drought without a world championship.
"You do the best you can, that's all you can do," said Piniella. "I'm here basically for the same thing my predecessors have been here for, and hopefully, I'll taste that success that has eluded them. I like managing the Cubs. I enjoy the challenge, I enjoy the atmosphere I work in. I do the best I can, that's all I can do."
Piniella does hear about that drought a lot.
"My answer is, you can only blame me for the time I've been here," he said.
Baker spent Monday's off day visiting some familiar places, and planned on making a stop at a few others, including the church he attended. Tuesday wasn't that awkward. Baker has returned to other places, like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
"Hopefully, this is my last stop," he said of Cincinnati.
He did learn from his experience in Chicago.
"A lot of places are tough, but you have to be tough," Baker said. "That's what it boils down to. I've been through a lot of stuff, most of it good, some of it bad. I learned from both of them. That's how life really is -- it's not about good stuff all the time."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.