The Bald Truth
I had a real nice conversation with Dusty Baker in the visiting manager's office at Wrigley Field the other day.
Although this isn't an acceptable thing to say in the Greater Cubbieland Metro Area - where Dusty is reviled because he "only" led the team within five outs of the World Series - I've always liked the guy.
My dad told me long ago that we only can treat people the way people treat us, and Dusty always was decent to me. He was decent to the city of Chicago, too.
He certainly made his share of mistakes during his four years managing the Cubs - chief among them, letting the inmates run the asylum in 2004 - but Baker ended up getting a pretty raw deal from the team and its fans.
I'm not the only one who felt that way. Here's what Aramis Ramirez said a few days ago when Baker's Reds were in town to take two out of three from Lou Piniella's Cubbies:
"It wasn't his fault. Nobody could manage that team in '06. We had guys coming from Double-A. We just had a bad team. If you gave Dusty this team, I guarantee we'd be in the playoffs, too."
Hey, I'm a Sweet Lou fan, but it didn't take a great manager to guide the Cubs to the playoffs last year. In 2003, Baker had to convince the Cubs that it was OK for them to win. They did, and a new Cubbie Era was born.
The bar was raised - not just a little, but a lot - creating the kind of expectations that drive Lou nuts today. Dusty can empathize.
"There's more competition for news here in Chicago than in most other places," Baker told me. "They've got more sports talk radio, more newspapers, more media - period. In Cincinnati, we've got three beat guys, and one of them is with MLB.com.
"Also, I'd never been a place where it's been that long between pennants, a place where you're constantly reminded of that. I was like, 'Hey, man, I've only been here four years. I'm not responsible for the other 96!'
"I've had a great life, not many regrets. But one of the few regrets I do have in my life was not bringing a championship to Chicago.
"It's too late. That's up to somebody else now."
The Cubs fans who couldn't wait to see Baker fired and Piniella hired are still waiting for Lou's big-money ballclub to win a championship.
Heck, they're still waiting for Lou's crew to win a single postseason game.
"Of course the Cubs should be favored to win. They won the division the last couple of years, didn't they? And they just keep buying more players. Man, their payroll is almost twice ours." - Dusty Baker.
The Balder Truth
Baker wanted to set the record straight on something he called a "misconception": that he doesn't like managing young players. The Reds have become a young team and Baker said he loves it.
"I've always wanted this. My daughter told me in spring training: 'Dad, I haven't heard this much excitement in your voice in a couple of years.' It's fun to build something. You're gonna see some mistakes, but that's part of the process of teaching. I've always wanted a younger team that I could teach how to play winning baseball versus getting guys from other places that might have had different values on how to play team baseball."
But what about his reputation to the contrary?
"Hey man, you can't help reputation," Baker said. "Whoever's talking about my reputation are people who never took the time to know me. They just assumed whatever. I don't know where that came from because I didn't have that in San Francisco. I didn't get that until I came to Chicago. You just get tired of defending yourself about the same thing over and over again."
As usual, there's a lot of gray in this situation. Baker had several young players who flourished under his watch in Chicago, including Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Theriot, Mark Prior, even Matt Murton. But yes, he preferred experienced hands when the going got tough - which makes him similar to most managers.
I never did figure out his odd reliance on Neifi Perez, though.
Just so I don't get accused of revisionist history ...
During Baker's final season, I wrote that it was time for the Cubs to change managers. I was pretty much the last Chicago columnist to say so, but I did say it.
My reason had more to do with the Cubs not deserving Baker than anything else. Tribune Co. had built a severely flawed team that made it impossible for him (or any manager) to win in Chicago. And the fans were convinced that Piniella (or anybody other than Dusty) was the answer.
So Dusty Baker was the scapegoat for everything that went wrong. He had to go.
Thank goodness! The string of championships the hundred-million-dollar-plus Cubs have put together since that bum was fired is truly impressive, no?
THE BALDEST TRUTH
There are few good things about being an ex-columnist, but here's one of them:
I no longer have to pretend that I know whom the Bears (or any other NFL team) should draft.
Nobody knows. Everybody guesses. The ESPN draftniks talk a lot - hours and hours and hours leading up to the draft, more hours and hours and hours during it. And for what?
I still remember Mel Kiper Jr. insisting that if the Colts didn't draft Heath Shuler, they'd be the biggest fools in NFL history. The team ended up taking Trev Alberts.
Well, Shuler was a bust. And so was Alberts. The ESPN expert was wrong. So were the Colts' honchos.
Talk about the perfect illustration of everything that is idiotic about this two-day We-have-no-clue-a-thon.
Every year, like all the other Chicago columnists, I would go to Halas Hall, sit around for six hours, wait for the Bears to make their selection and then write my "expert" opinion. Why? Because that's what the job called upon me to do.
But if GMs all over the league can't pick the right offensive lineman or cornerback or tailback, how the heck are the rest of us supposed to? If after studying film and talking to scouts and analyzing "measurables," ESPN's experts think that Trent Dilfer is going to be a superstar, what chance do us regular folks have?
I call it The Worst Weekend In Sports, and - run for the hills! - it's upon us again.
This year, my weekend will be spent with family and friends, not with Jerry Angelo, Mel Kiper Jr. and a roomful of fellow scribes. I guarantee that I won't watch even one second of the We-have-no-clue-a-thon.
Sure, I'd rather be employed. But avoiding The Worst Weekend In Sports is a pretty decent consolation prize.