Clear the field

Dusty Baker is the greatest manager in San Francisco Giants history. So why is team owner Peter Magowan on the verge of letting him go?

By Joan Walsh

Published October 9, 2002 7:06PM (EDT)

"Clear the field!" a defiant San Francisco Giants wife told me Sunday night, after the Giants beat the Braves to tie the Division Series. She was gripping my hand so hard it hurt. I understood her ferocity: She was heading to Atlanta on a red-eye for the do-or-die game on Monday, and she was trying to give me, a fellow fan, last words of inspiration. But I had no idea what she was talking about.

So she explained: "You need to clear the field: Clear your mind of negative thoughts about the Giants! Do it before every pitch. Think only positive thoughts. That's your job! Get rid of all negativity! They can win this!"

We hugged, and I promised her I would clear the field, or try to. But I felt guilty: I've been thinking negative thoughts about the Giants most of this season. The poor lady didn't know who she was talking to (and that's why I won't use her name); I'm the queen of negativity. I've been convinced that the unhappy relationship between beloved Giants manager Dusty Baker and team owner Peter Magowan would result in Baker's departure after the season, a baseball tragedy so immense that if it happens, a standing-room-only crowd of 43,000 meditating Buddhist monks won't be able to clear Pacific Bell Park for the Giants. I even wrote about the Baker-Magowan troubles in San Francisco magazine, a piece that's been widely quoted, debated, hailed, reviled, though never refuted. It didn't exactly clear the field when it appeared in August.

Maybe even worse, I doubted Baker himself when he told me not to worry about his contract, or the Giants' fortunes this season, that his team -- my team -- would play well into October this time. The three-time National League Manager of the Year, the winningest skipper in San Francisco Giants history, was unwavering. "We're going to win this thing, because I've got to," he told me in June, as the Giants were falling further behind the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers with almost every series. I believed him for a while, but my faith failed me at several points during the summer, and again last Saturday, when the Giants dropped a second game to the Braves -- thanks in part to a Baker pitching choice that riled up all his critics all over again -- and stood on the verge of elimination.

But I woke up Sunday and read that Baker was still cool, calm and predicting a Giants series victory, and I reminded myself to trust him again. Of course that night they won a glorious game, when pitcher Livan Hernandez, another sports-talk goat, repaid Baker's loyalty and befuddled the Braves. So on Monday, I took the advice of my new friend. I cleared the field, and by God it worked. In the sports bar where I watched the game, fans were sweating with every pitch. (You can pick out Giants fans, like Cubs fans or Red Sox fans, because we have a natural cringe about us, a reflexive, defensive slope to the shoulders, a posture developed after decades of getting beaten about the face and head by our team.) When closer Robb Nen faced Chipper Jones in the ninth inning with one out and two men on base, not even two months after he blew a save in almost the same situation -- same score, 3-1, until Jones tied the August game with a single -- well, folks in the bar were holding their heads in their hands, afraid to look at the TV set, literally tearing their hair. But I was completely calm. "It's time for Nen to pick up his team," a voice told me, and it wasn't my voice, or any voice I recognized, but it told the truth. Jones grounded into a game-ending double play. Bye-bye, Braves.

I don't really believe that thinking positive thoughts is the reason the Giants won, but I'm not going to mess with a winning combination. I'll stay superstitious until it stops working.

So now I'm clearing the field for the League Championship Series, against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Giants' first LCS since 1989, and the first ever in Baker's 10 years as manager. Let me be very, very clear: I believe the Giants can win their first World Series since they moved from New York to San Francisco in 1958 (the year I was born); their first, in fact, since 1954. And I believe Peter Magowan can make up with Dusty Baker this October, whatever happens in the World Series, and bring Baker back next year. But I have a full day to clear the field this time, so let me revisit that mess, only to leave it behind, for good this time, when I'm done.

To some folks, my second statement -- that Baker could still return to the Giants -- will make me sound crazier than the first. On Sunday, the New York Times' sage baseball columnist Murray Chass reported that Baker is out of here, that he's already told "friends" he will leave the Giants "once the playoffs end," angry that Magowan refused to talk about a contract extension until after the season. For his part, Magowan believes Baker "had manipulated the news media and had not appreciated what the Giants had done for him," Chass reported, citing a "colleague" of Magowan's as his source.

That ain't the half of it. Chass didn't seem to talk to either man directly, but I did, and they each gave me an earful of their issues with the other. Yet both sides continue to insist Baker's not finished with the Giants -- and I believe them. Here's why I think that, and what I believe it would take to get Baker to stay.

First of all, Baker himself continues to insist he hasn't decided to leave. "I wish my friends would let stuff come out of my mouth," he told reporters after the Chass article appeared, and he once again denied he'd made up his mind. When we talked in June, he said the same thing.

"I don't know what the future holds. I really don't know. I swear I don't know." I tried to reassure him I wasn't guilt-tripping him -- he has more than enough reason to be fed up with Giants management -- but he cut me off: "Ain't nothin' to guilt-trip me about. No. 1, you don't sign yourself. No. 2, I'm not thinking about it, because Peter already said he'd evaluate me at the end of the season. And that's just fine."

I don't believe Baker would look me in the eye and swear he wasn't leaving, if he'd already made up his mind to go. Likewise, I don't believe he'd say that now if he were certain he was gone. Does he have days when he's convinced he's going to tell his boss to take this job and shove it? Hell, yes -- don't you? But I don't believe he'd lie about it if he knew he was leaving for sure.

Yet I have to admit Baker told me one thing that wasn't true: It wasn't fine with Baker that Magowan wouldn't discuss his contract until after the season. It was the opposite of fine. The manager came back from December prostate cancer surgery to a tin-eared, win-or-else ultimatum from Magowan, who told reporters in March that he wouldn't evaluate Baker until after the season -- and that he expected the season to end in the World Series. "I think we should be the favorites," Magowan said. "I don't see any holes in our team."

Baker seethed about the comment, and its juxtaposition with Magowan's refusal to talk about a contract extension, all season long. "It irritated us all," Baker told me. "It put undue pressure on all of us here. OK, sure, he improved the team, but he didn't know we'd lose [relief pitcher] Jason Christiansen all year." In fact, the superstitious might blame Magowan's braggadocio for the fact that the Giants were oddly injury-prone this year. In July, the team featured an outfield starring backup guys Tom Goodwin and Shawon Dunston alongside infielder Ramon Martinez, after starters Barry Bonds, Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Reggie Sanders all suffered hamstring troubles. (Note to national media: They played the St. Louis Cardinals in that period, which is part of why their season record is only 2-4.) "That's why you never say things like that. You never say, 'No holes,'" Baker said, still angry months later.

But when I gave Magowan a chance to take back his spring ultimatum, or at least phrase it more delicately, he refused. "It may not have been the most diplomatic thing to say in the world, but it is what I felt," he told me. "We've taken the payroll up to $75 million. The ownership has stuck its neck out here to try and give San Francisco a World Series team. We also have a team that is getting older. If we're going to do it with this team, this is the year to do it in. OK?" He went on: "I know the man was coming back from prostate cancer, and I'm well aware what that can do. I lost a brother last December who had prostate cancer, among other problems. I've got another brother with prostate cancer. But the job is what it is. And with the job comes responsibilities and, inevitably, expectations."

That wasn't my only testy exchange with the Giants' normally diplomatic owner. When I interviewed him for my story -- which began as an homage to Baker's 10 years as manager, and turned into an exposé of the tension between him and Magowan after my interviews -- I was blown away by his level of irritation with his popular manager. Frankly, I expected damage control. The pair had one widely publicized tiff two years ago, when Magowan didn't talk to Baker after a tough playoff loss to the New York Mets, and Baker told the media, "Maybe I've worn out my welcome." But they made up, Baker signed a two-year contract, and Magowan has since blamed the media for blowing the clash out of proportion.

This time around, I expected Magowan to do much the same thing: Make nice with his manager, blame the media -- me -- for stirring up old trouble, and downplay Baker's tenuous contract status. But he didn't. Instead he complained early and often about the Giants' front office not getting enough acclaim for its baseball smarts, while all the hosannas go to Baker.

"I don't think, as an organization, we get anywhere near the credit that we should for the things that we've done," Magowan said. "And one of them is put consistently good teams on the field. I mean, it's all very well to cite Dusty. And I'm not trying to take anything at all away from Dusty. But when we look at his Manager of the Year awards, I think in part they reflect an organization of the year type award." He went on. "I'm just a little resentful. I think the players haven't gotten the credit they should have. [General Manager] Brian Sabean hasn't gotten credit for the moves he's made. And I think the ownership should be credited for doing what was required in terms of raising the payroll, to say nothing of the environment we've created here which allows us to have the payroll we do." That wasn't all. Asked about his 2000 spat with Baker, he used the word "resent" one more time: "I resent some of this, because I'm the guy that rehired him back in 1996, when we were in last place."

I won't say much about Magowan's comments, because 1) I'm trying to clear the field and 2) others have already said plenty. The San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins said "Magowan should be ashamed of himself" for suggesting Baker gets too much credit; the San Jose Mercury News columnist Ann Killion ripped him as "desperately, and somewhat pathetically, jealous" of Baker. Then again, Mercury News columnist Skip Bayless, who whacked Magowan in my piece, wrote on Monday that the owner's springtime ultimatum deserves some of the credit for goading the Giants to rise to the occasion and achieve this year, if only to save their manager's job. You be the judge.

Let me just say this: I believe Baker deserved better. Coming off cancer surgery, he deserved a contract extension. And in fact, he deserved better before he had cancer, too. The world is divided into two camps: Dusty Baker worshippers, who admire his baseball smarts and his multicultural cool and his ability to meld a clubhouse that contains Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent into a winning team; and Dusty Baker detractors, who focus on his occasional questionable strategic choices, and (in my opinion) miss the forest while they're obsessing about individual pinch-hitter and relief-pitcher trees. Sadly for everyone involved, there are some leading Baker detractors in the Giants' front office, who've never entirely trusted the manager's blue-collar loyalty to his players, his passion for the underdog, or his penchant for going with his hunches (over theirs, I guess). But they're stuck with him, knowing they risk a fan insurrection if they show him the door.

In my worst moments, my darkest, least generous, not-at-all-clear moments, I've watched this year's Baker saga play out with a conspiracy theorist's dread: Saddled with a manager they don't much like but whom fans love, maybe Baker detractors are conspiring to drive him crazy with backbiting, second-guessing and off-the-record criticism to reporters, knowing his pride will make it impossible to come back to a team where he feels he's been deeply disrespected. Then they offer him a contract -- and in fact, to put down the Baker's-outta-here rumors, team officials "leaked" a plan to do just that last week, the day after Bruce Jenkins' brave slap at Magowan -- and still look like the good guys when, predictably, he decides to walk away.

That's in my worst moments. In my better moments, when I'm clearing the field, I think of Magowan's tense, strained face on television Monday night -- he looked miserable every time the camera found him -- and I think: He wants to do the right thing, he really does; he just isn't sure what it is. Let me give Magowan credit for being right about at least one thing: This is a World Series caliber team, and he and Baker both deserve credit for coming this far.

Am I clear yet? Not really. I'm trying to visualize Magowan and Baker in a big hug, at a press conference announcing his signing, and I can't get there. But I can't see Baker in anything other than a Giants uniform, either. Even Murray Chass's piece fell apart when he tried to imagine the other part of the story: where Baker goes if he leaves the Giants. Personally, I think he'd hate New York; the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox are more snakebit than the Giants (plus Baker's friend Don Baylor didn't love the Chicago management group); he won't go to a struggling small-payroll team like Pittsburgh or Tampa Bay. Seattle was an intriguing possibility, until Lou Piniella voted to stay with the Mariners. Chass suggested Baker could wind up with the Texas Rangers -- Alex Rodriguez is said to be lobbying for him, and having wasted $250 million on A-Rod, owner Tom Hicks would think nothing of shelling out $5 million a year for Baker.

But this isn't about money for Baker, and I don't see him in Texas. The only scenario that's ever made sense to me is Atlanta -- Baker played there in the 1970s, mentored by Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige; he remains close to Aaron and former teammate Ralph Garr, who still work for the Braves organization; Atlanta's a big multicultural city with great music, great culture, great food. With Bobby Cox now getting the Dusty Baker treatment for some of his managing errors in this division series (and the Barry Bonds treatment for his record of post-season failure), you can imagine him moving on, finally, opening up a big-payroll job for Baker. Yet I can't ultimately picture that either. Baker's no politically correct hack, but I don't see him in the dugout while they're doing that idiotic Tomahawk chop, waving those limp red foam hatchets, chanting robotically like a stadium full of overmedicated psychiatric patients.

I really don't see Baker anywhere but here. His parents live in Sacramento, and they're getting on in years; his family has deep roots here; he loves the outdoors -- the ocean, the lakes, the mountains nearby -- and the indoors, too: the clubs, the restaurants, the culture. The last time we talked, he told me even if he left the Giants, San Francisco would remain his home. "You can count on that. This is my kind of city: I like the music, the people, the culture."

So I think it's time San Francisco got a big karmic do-over, and everybody gets to start clear. Faced with a final decision about what to do with Dusty Baker, this time Peter Magowan rises to the occasion, the way Robb Nen did Monday night. This time, he picks up his team. He avenges all the Giants who made the wrong choice or choked or screwed up over the years: Atlee Hammaker giving up that three-run homer to Jose Oquendo in the 1987 LCS against the Cards; Candy Maldonado, in that same blighted series, sliding to catch a short fly ball by Cards' catcher Tony Pena, and missing horribly; Baker not pinch-hitting for pitcher Mark Gardner with the bases loaded and the Giants down just 2-0 in the sad final game against the Mets in 2000. He meets man-to-man with Baker, and they clear the air. All the resentment and anger comes out, nothing is held back. And when it's over, Magowan looks Baker in the eye and says, "We don't have to be the best of friends, we probably never will be, but I've realized you're the best manager in baseball. As long as you want a job here, you've got it." And Magowan does this before the World Series, like a mensch. Maybe the Giants go on to win, maybe they lose, but the field will be clear.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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