CINCINNATI–When the Cincinnati Reds became the first team in Major League baseball to clinch a post-season spot Thursday in Chicago, the clubhouse celebration was muted. That’s because manager Dusty Baker had been taken to the hospital with an irregular heartbeat Wednesday and still wasn’t back with his team.
Friday afternoon, when the team reported to the Great American Ball Park to start a homestand that will result in the Reds also clinching the National League Central Division crown, perhaps even that day, talk among the players was more about the empty chair in the manager’s office than the so-close-they-could-sniff-it championship.
Baker, who has previously endured a bout of prostate cancer, was not at the park Friday and not even acting manager Chris Speier knew for sure whether he was in Cincinnati yet, still undergoing tests in Chicago, resting at home, or just when he will return to the job he has handled so ably this summer as the Reds have soared past 90 victories with the chance to win 100. It turned out that cautious doctors held Baker in the hospital in Chicago and he was still there Saturday.
Baker, who turned 63 in June, had a long playing career as a two-time All-Star with a lifetime .278 batting average, and the Reds are the third team he has managed. He guided both the San Francisco Giants and Cubs to the playoffs and is a three-time manager of the year. The only hole on his resume is a World Series title–this year’s team has been determined to fill that void. But Friday represented the third game Baker has sat out.
“He’s more on my mind than my mind is on this game,” said Speier, a Reds coach by official job description, of the Friday contest against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Speier said he chose the starting lineup, getting no direction from Baker, and he has let Baker rest, waiting for his friend and boss to reach out to him for conversation.
“I’ve backed off,” Speier said.
There was a relaxed atmosphere in the Reds clubhouse before the game. Several players even took electronic toy cars and helicopters out onto the field to race. The NL division championship trophy, tall and gleaming, was unwrapped and placed on a table, the feeling apparently that if the Reds didn’t win the crown outright Friday they would win it soon enough.
Reds players are 30 and 40 years younger than Baker. For many of them, the ones who weren’t around for the 2010 division title, this is their first brush with the post-season. They want to yell and scream, but they have tempered displays of joy, respecting Baker’s condition. The opposing feelings tug at one another.
“We just pray that he’s going to be alright,” said backup Miguel Cairo, who has been around longer than many of the players. “No. 1 is health. Baseball’s second.”
Limited news about Baker’s health prospects have leaned toward the positive, that he should return to his job any day. But that’s unofficial. Baker is regarded as a player’s manager, a guy who has been there and lived through everything. He is usually soft-spoken, smiles easily, and comes off as about as relaxed as anyone who holds such a pressurized job could be.
Exactly how Baker copes with stress isn’t completely clear. He takes his young son fishing regularly and always seems to have a book around on his desk or office table. But Baker is also cautious in his speech when assessing his team. He is too superstitious to take a single thing for granted, although even Baker might admit that with a magic number of two entering Friday’s play and 12 games left, the squad was going to win its division.
Zack Cozart, 26, the rookie starting shortstop, addressed the night’s mission.
“We’ve got to win one for the skipper,” he said.
Cozart may or may not be familiar with the Gipper, but Baker certainly is. Winning would be the best get-well card Baker could receive.