When Reds owner Robert Castellini announced the hiring of Dusty Baker to manage the club prior to the 2008 season, I excitedly tuned into 700WLW to hear the fan response. Instead of people calling in to support the first major decision made by the new owner, I was shocked to hear caller after caller complain "Why would we hire Dusty Baker?"
I wasn't sure if my fellow Reds fans were ignorant, racist or some combination of the two, because I was asking the exact opposite question, "How did we convince Dusty Baker to take this crappy job?"
The knock on Baker was that he couldn't couldn't close out the World Series with the Giants or take the Cubs the final five outs to their first World Series in 6,000 years. Boy, as a Reds fan I was prepared to grapple with those kind of problems. The Reds previous four managers were, now get this, Bob Boone, Dave Miley, Jerry Narron and who could ever forget, Pete Mackenan. Those legendary skippers combined to put up a robust record of 513 wins and 620 losses. So what if three-time manager-of-the-year winner Baker blew out some young power arms along the way? I could live with that and besides, we didn't have any young power arms to blow out anyway.
Dusty Baker was a proven winner and for a franchise that hadn't made the playoffs since 1995, that was good enough for me. And guess what? Baker took a franchise where mediocrity was considered a good year and created a culture where winning ninety games and making the playoffs could get you fired.
Players like Joey Votto, Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce developed into valuable major league assets, unlike previous Reds "can't miss" prospects Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. Player after player, and even salty Reds play by play man Marty Brennaman claimed, "This is the best clubhouse in baseball." Without question, Baker had his faults, and his old school philosophies concerning OBP and bunting were hopelessly out of date, but he did teach this group of players how to win and in the process raise expectations for the entire Reds organization.
For those who amazingly claim that Dusty doesn't deserve credit for taking the Reds to the post-season 3 out of 4 years, I ask, would he have gotten the blame if the Reds had losing records all of those years? Sorry friends, can't have it both ways.
Oddly, both my personal high and low point of the Dusty Baker tenure occurred in the same game. The Reds were set to battle the eventual world champion Giants in deciding game 5 of the NL divisional playoffs in a rare afternoon start. With so much on the line and the early start time, I surprised my son Owen by pulling him out of his 3rd grade class so we could go home and watch the game together. I value education, but who knows when we would get a chance to share a memory like this again, if ever? A deciding baseball playoff game featuring our favorite team and at reasonable time? I just had to make the executive decision and go for it. We spent the game rotating between listening to the game on the radio and throwing baseballs in the front yard and running inside to watch on TV when things got tense. The Reds lost a tough one but it was a moment we would never forget and certainly made bigger baseball fans out of both of us.
So on behalf of myself and Owen, thanks to Dusty Baker for all the good memories. We will miss watching your excitement as you greeted your players when they would line up after a victory. It's time for a change, but we will remember the Dusty years fondly. (And thanks for signing Owen's Reds cap outside Wrigley Field one afternoon too.)