King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Cubs in free fall: How did Dusty Baker lose his mojo? And is it gone for good?

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Dusty Baker is a fool, a horrible excuse for a manager, a dunce, an idiot, the most overrated field general in the history of the game, and the Chicago Cubs should fire him.

I don’t believe all that. I actually don’t believe any of it except maybe the last part. But what’s funny is that I don’t think I could type a sentence that would be less controversial than that one.

It looks to me like everyone wants Baker out. The sabermetric types have been suspicious of him for years because of his poor tactical decisions, abuse of young pitchers’ arms and insistence on playing washed-up veterans over prospects, but Cubs fans and Chicago media are starting to beat the drums against Baker as loudly as any stathead ever has.

And why not? The Cubs are 28-48, in fifth place in the National League Central. The only good news is that the Cubs are lucky enough to be in the one division where you can fall farther than fifth, and the one that’s also home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, losers of 12 in a row.

The Cubs have lost five in a row and 12 out of 14. They’re 14 games out of first place, but worse than that, they’re nine games out of fourth. Even if they get better, it isn’t going to get a whole lot better.

Dusty Baker spent a decade as one of the most respected managers in the major leagues. Now he’s a fool. What happened?

From 1993 to 2002 Baker managed the San Francisco Giants. His first team was one of the best second-place clubs in baseball history, winning 103 games but losing the division race to the Atlanta Braves in the last year before the advent of the wild card.

Then in his last six years in San Francisco the Giants won three division titles and finished second the other three years. They won the pennant in 2002, losing the World Series in seven games to the Anaheim Angels.

Throughout his tenure with the Giants, Baker was lauded as a terrific manager, one of the best in baseball. There were those pointing out even then that he rode pitchers awfully hard, putting them at injury risk, that he had way too much love for useless old veterans along the lines of Shawon Dunston, and that he had no clue about the finer points of baseball tactics.



But it was something of a given that his communication and leadership skills trumped all that, that players simply played better when Dusty Baker was their manager. Those Giants teams he kept guiding to first- and second-place finishes were routinely pegged as also-rans in preseason forecasts.

He went to Chicago in 2003 and won with the Cubs, which wasn’t exactly par for the course at Wrigley Field. The Cubs had lost 95 games in 2001, and had won as many as 90 exactly once since 1990, a stretch that covered five managers, not counting interim guys.

There had been six winning seasons in the last 29 and three postseason appearances since V-E Day, with, famously, none of those going as far as the World Series.

Baker didn’t get the Cubs to the Series, as you must know if you’ve ever heard the name Steve Bartman, but he got them within five outs, and he seemed to signal a new era on the Northside.

Within a year, it was all starting to fall apart. In 2004 the Cubs actually won one more game than they had the year before, but where 88 victories had been enough to win the weak Central Division in ’03, 89 meant third place, 16 games out in ’04. The season ended with Baker and Sammy Sosa feuding and a ridiculous whizzing match between some of Baker’s players, plus Cubs management, and broadcaster Steve Stone.

Since then it has been a steady decline. A 79-83 record and fourth-place finish last year, and then this year’s near total meltdown. There have been some valid excuses, primarily injuries to star pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, as well as slugger Derrek Lee’s broken wrist this year.

But those are just excuses — even if you excuse any role Baker may have had in the pitchers’ health woes. The Cubs just aren’t a very good team.

But hang on a second: Baker spent years guiding not-very-good teams to solid seasons in San Francisco. How did he suddenly become the idiot who’s responsible for the decline of the Cubs? Sure he plays Neifi Perez way too much. But he played Neifi Perez way too much in San Francisco too.

I don’t know the answer, in case you’re still reading because you’re hoping to learn the answer.

I’m one of those who believed, and still believe, that Baker really was a big part of the Giants’ success during his years there, that a baseball manager’s tactical decisions are dwarfed by his ability to be a good manager in the business sense, to be a leader who puts his employees in a position to succeed and creates the proper atmosphere for them to do so.

This despite my beliefs about team chemistry. Life is complicated.

But maybe it was just Barry Bonds carrying the Giants all those years, though remember that Bonds didn’t become a late-career freak until Baker’s last two years with the team. Before that he was “just” a very, very good player.

Maybe it was some other non-Dusty factor. Maybe there was something about those Giants teams that was uniquely difficult for preseason prognosticators to judge. It’s not like preseason prognosticators have a great track record, but I can’t remember another team in the past 20 years that, year in and year out, so many experts were so wrong about.

That phenomenon traveled to Chicago with Baker in 2003. Almost nobody picked the Cubs to win the N.L. Central. I say this because it lets me remind you that I picked them to win the N.L. Central. What I wrote was, “I’m going to take a flyer on Baker and the Cubs, not so much because of the manager, though his leadership will be big, but because of their young, talented starters.”

I also wrote, “If Baker can win big at Wrigley Field, he’s every bit the manager he’s cracked up to be.”

Maybe so, maybe not. The 2003 Cubs were widely seen by the commentariat as a third-place team, and to be fair, that’s what they were. It was the rest of the division, especially the Cardinals and the Houston Astros, who fell away that year. You have to go back to 1997, when the division only had five teams, to find another year when 88 games was enough to win it.

One of the frustrations of baseball studies is how difficult it has been to assess the role of the manager. Do teams win because of or in spite of their manager? Do we credit the manager too much when a team outperforms our expectations, rather than crediting luck or our own shortcomings as evaluators? Do we assign too much blame when the opposite happens?

Were all those players who played better under a new manager going to play better that year anyway? How is it that a single manager can seem like a genius one year and a fool the next?

How did Jack McKeon, who had never distinguished himself as a field manager over 12 seasons in Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego and Cincinnati, suddenly become the dynamic leader who took the Florida Marlins all the way in 2003? And then go right back to being Jack McKeon?

And what do we do with a guy like Joe Torre, who did some nice work and plenty of mediocre in 15 seasons at the helm of the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, never reaching the postseason, and then won four World Series in his first five years at Yankee Stadium?

I don’t know, I tell you, I don’t know. And nobody else does either, though smart people are working to try to figure it out. Here’s Part 1 of an interesting study by Chris Jaffe at Baseball Think Factory.

I have my theories, same as anybody else. I believe managers can make a difference, that most of that difference is off the field, in the business sense of management, and also that managers can have good years and bad years or good eras and bad eras. The same approach that makes one generation of players think you’re a pretty neat guy can grate on the nerves of the next one, and generations are pretty short in the major leagues.

Managers can also find themselves, just like you and I can, in positions that suit their skills and positions that don’t.

I don’t think Dusty Baker is responsible for the Cubs’ slide. The blame there rests on injuries on top of general manager Jim Hendry’s poor roster construction, far too dependent on the creaky veterans Baker loves. But I don’t think he’s done much to stop it and may have done plenty to help it along.

It would surprise me if Baker were still managing the Cubs in 2007, and it would surprise me if he were managing another team too. This season has been so toxic, and the last three years so rocky, that he’ll probably have to go through an untouchable period of a year or two as somebody’s bench coach, maybe pull some duty on “Baseball Tonight.”

But Baker’s only 57. It would surprise me a lot if he never managed again. It would also surprise me if he weren’t pretty good at it, for all his faults.

Previous column: Univision vs. ESPN

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