Baker father figure for promising club
Skipper's leadership keeping Reds on track amid obstacles
CINCINNATI -- Life for Dusty Baker has been, in part, a sincere search for knowledge and comprehension.
In this particular case, the manager of the Cincinnati Reds is searching through a filing cabinet behind his desk. The object of his search is an index card containing notes on a conversation held long ago, with Bill Russell.
Russell was an NBA great, both as a player and a coach with the Boston Celtics, a fierce competitor, the cornerstone of a dynasty. Still, you do not necessarily expect to find his thoughts enshrined in the home clubhouse at Great American Ball Park.
"I remember talking to Bill Russell one time," Baker says with a smile. "I asked him how the Celtics won all the time. I was a Lakers fan."
The appropriate index card now located, Baker finds the wisdom that Russell imparted. "He told me to be kind and generous to each other," Baker says.
"He told me, 'To lead is to serve.' That's what he told me. It shocked me coming from a hard Bill Russell."
True, "To lead is to serve" wouldn't fit the public perception of the driven, determined Russell. But it just shows you that there was more than one dimension to the man. And it tells you that there is more than one dimension to successful leadership, in basketball, in baseball, in life. This isn't all about the archetypal Knute Rockne halftime speech. This is also about retaining enough humility to relate to the athletes in your charge.
The leadership issue is front and center on Sunday, Father's Day, because Baker is in charge of a club that has considerable promise, but much of that promise can now be found on the disabled list. First baseman Joey Votto had been tearing up the National League, hitting .357 with a .464 on-base percentage and a .627 slugging percentage. He is on the DL with a stress-related condition. Edwin Encarnacion, the regular third baseman, has been on the disabled list since late April with a wrist injury. The veteran shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, still a superior defensive player, went on the disabled list this weekend with a right elbow injury.
And in the other half of the game, starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, a magnificent young talent who compiled a 17-6 record last season, has been on the DL twice this season, most recently with back spasms. A number of other players have been out at various times with injuries and illness. But at the close of business on Sunday, the Reds were still a .500 team, merely four games out in a National League Central race that has been parity personified so far this season.
On paper, given all the injuries, and given the fact that the Reds are only 11th in the NL in runs scored, 34-34 is not merely acceptable. It is an achievement. It creates genuine hope. The Reds will get healthier -- both Votto and Encarnacion are on rehab assignments now.
"We've got guys who are close to coming back," Aaron Harang, Sunday's starting pitcher, said. "And those are two big guys in our lineup."
And there is no evidence that another Central team is going to run away with this division. How are the Reds staying in the thick of things? There are tangible reasons and intangible reasons.
"We're doing it with pitching, pretty good defense, some timely hitting, a lot of belief, positive thinking," Baker says. "Everybody who has come up has done something. I told them in Spring Training: 'Everybody here is going to play. Everybody here stay ready. We're going to use everybody on our roster.'"
Beyond that there is Baker's baseball belief system in which the team is something of a family, and the manager is, if not the father figure, at least the chief facilitator, working everybody through the inevitable difficult passages. To make this work, you need a manager with personal depth and empathy. Baker, three times the NL Manager of the Year, has those qualities.
"It works if [the players] believe in what you're saying, " Baker says. "It works in every job in life, I don't care what job you have. I want my guys to stay together, no matter what; stay together, pull for each other, no envy.
"There's competition from within, but I don't play envy and jealousy. Those things can tear a team apart. You've got a problem, you get it out right away, get it over with, go on about your business. And, hopefully, they like each other."
There are going to be days for this team, as presently constituted, when the struggle to score is an unsuccessful struggle. Sunday was one of those, the rubber match of an Interleague series against the White Sox. In a 4-1 loss, the Reds were shut out for seven innings by the veteran lefty, Mark Buehrle. He has won 129 games. He has stopped the very best. This is not an accidental performance for him. Still, the Reds' continued run production difficulties remain a concern.
"Some of it is Buehrle," Baker said of Sunday's offensive struggles. "But it isn't Buehrle every day."
With all of that, given all of the factors involved, the Reds' 34-34 record contains more encouragement than discouragement.
"If you told me in Spring Training we would be right where we're at with all the injuries and everything that's happened to this team, I would have definitely taken it, especially in our division," infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "We're right in the thick of things. Hopefully, we'll get healthy and maybe make a run."
Can the Reds hang on, hang in and remain legitimate contenders over the long haul?
"We hope it can go on," Baker says. "I don't know if it can go on or not. Sometimes, I don't even know how it's going on at this point. The thing about going on is, you don't think about not going on. Like this surfer friend of mine; if he's riding a wave, he's riding it all the way to the beach, he's not thinking about falling off. If you think about falling off, you're going to fall off."
It is fair to say that there is only one big league manager out of 30 who would give you both Bill Russell and surfing in the same conversation, and on the same topic. In a situation such as the Reds' -- in which there will be difficult times ahead, but also plenty of long-term promise -- Dusty Baker is ideally suited to manage each and every aspect.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.