SAN FRANCISCO – Minus his old signature toothpick, Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker leaned against the batting cage intently watching his players just as he did for a decade managing the Giants.
Baker is back in the Bay Area for the playoffs, 10 years after he came so close to winning a World Series with San Francisco.
“Well, I really don’t have much choice,” Baker said when asked if it’s a strange coincidence. “I feel comfortable here. I think my team likes coming here. This is a good town.”
Sometimes Baker still feels the sting of that World Series near-miss, even now, two managerial stops removed from his first career gig as a skipper in the place he has long called home.
Today, he figures to be cheered by 40,000-plus fans at AT&T Park who still love him – “some of ‘em,” he quipped – when the NL Central champion Reds open their best-of-five division series against the Giants, who like Cincinnati clinched early and had plenty of time to get everything situated and lined up for the postseason.
“I’ll be honest, I like this clinching early thing,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose 2010 World Series championship team clinched in Game 162.
These days, the 63-year-old Baker is conserving energy after a recent 11-game absence forced by a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat. He just rejoined the Reds on Monday in St. Louis. Baker was away for the NL Central clincher, and Homer Bailey’s no-hitter Sept. 28 at Pittsburgh.
He’s ready to go now – with no plans to change a thing about the way he operates during a game on the playoff stage.
“I’m feeling like a grateful man,” Baker said from his spot at the cage on a sunny fall afternoon in the Giants’ waterfront ballpark.
Cincinnati’s 19-game winner Johnny Cueto takes the ball in Game 1 tonight.
Matt Cain (16-5) pitches the opener for the Giants with plenty of postseason cred to fall back on: The three-time All-Star didn’t surrender an earned run during his team’s improbable title run two years ago. He went 2-0 in three starts and 21 1-3 innings, struck out 13 and walked seven.
Cain won his final six regular-season decisions and struck out 193 batters in 219 1/3 innings this season. The right-hander hasn’t lost in 10 starts since Aug. 6 at St. Louis.
He earned himself a new $127.5 million, six-year contract before the season as he’d so hoped, then backed that up by tossing the first perfect game in franchise history June 13 against the Houston Astros.
“This group has been together since the beginning and we all had the thought that this is where we wanted to be in spring training,” Cain said.
The Barry Bonds-led Giants fell six outs short of a World Series title in Game 6 against the wild-card Angels, then lost Game 7. And Baker was gone shortly thereafter, off to the Windy City for the daunting challenge of managing the Chicago Cubs.
Nobody will forget that terrifying moment when Baker’s then-3 1/2-year-old son, Darren, wandered into a play at the plate and almost got run over in Game 5 at AT&T Park. That led to the “Darren Baker” bat-boy rule as it became known — no toddlers working as bat boys, and a new age requirement of 14.
“Sometimes it stings at me, but you’ve got to leave it in the past,” Baker said. “You can’t live in the future and stay in the past. But I’m still here. I have an opportunity to win a championship here, and it lets you know exactly that time never stops. Time goes very quickly. Doesn’t seem like 10 years ago, doesn’t seem like 10 years ago my boy was 3 years old, being pulled off the mound. It lets me know that I’m getting older.”
Two years ago, the Giants finally captured the city’s first baseball championship since the franchise came West from New York in 1958. Two years ago, Baker’s Reds won the division and were swept right out of October by the Phillies and even got no-hit by Roy Halladay in the process.
Both are back in the playoffs after failing to make it in 2011. Both dealt with devastating injuries and lost their closers: San Francisco’s Brian Wilson and Cincinnati’s Ryan Madson.
Everybody involved knows these games could be interesting for a pair of clubs comfortable in close games — three of this season’s seven meetings were decided by one run.
“It’s going to be really electric, really emotional,” Giants center fielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan said.
Baker may still be returning to his former energetic self, but you wouldn’t know it by his quick wit and good-natured approach to everything and everybody.
That is what made it so hard on everyone in San Francisco when he departed on difficult terms with former managing partner Peter Magowan that fall of 2002. Yet Baker certainly will be given his due Saturday.
“We’ll see if they still love me on Sunday if we start off 2-0,” he joked with a smile.
Sticking to a healthy diet designed by grown daughter Natosha and wife Melissa, Baker went out for dinner Thursday night “with a couple of my home boys I grew up with” and ordered tomato soup, tomato salad and fish. He was headed for Filipino food Friday.
“He’s in really good spirits and good health,” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. “He had a little scare. He’s back stronger and better than ever — we’re very fortunate.”
Baker feels so good, in fact, he plans to manage again in 2013. Right now, he has an unsettled contract situation, but points out that’s nothing new to him. Throughout his recent ordeal, Baker pondered that maybe his best option is to stay put right where he is — if the Reds will keep him around.
“This is about the 10th time I’ve been through this,” he said. “The only thing that’s in my control is to win ballgames, and God is always taking care of me.”
Even Jocketty sees the significance as Baker returns to the place where he started as a manager. The place he was honored earlier this summer during the Reds’ trip to San Francisco, as part of a tribute to the ‘02 team.
“It is kind of ironic,” Jocketty said. “I know he’s excited about being here and being part of this. He feels very confident about our club. He thinks this is our year, and I think he’s right.”