Oh what a difference three years can make.
That must be the thought running through Cubs' manager Dusty Baker's mind right now. It was only that long ago that Baker was the toast of Chicago. Everything he touched turned to gold. Players loved him; fans trusted him; management showed their confidence by making him the second-highest paid manager in the game.
Then Alex Gonzalez let a ball slip through his legs and Steve Bartman reached out for a foul ball from his field box seat along the left field line. Things haven't been the same since.
After taking the Cubs to the brink of their first World Series in almost sixty years, Dusty Baker has seen his team decimated by injuries and once again fall to the cellar.
The Chicago Cubs look headed for their first 100-loss season in 40 years, and management and the fans are looking for answers. Since firing an entire roster of players (minus Derrek Lee and Greg Maddux) seems highly unlikely, and General Manager Jim Hendry is probably in no rush to fire himself, it appears the axe will inevitably come down on the neck of Dusty Baker.
In all fairness to the skipper, however, Baker has not taken one swing for an offense that finds itself last in the league in runs scored, RBI, walks, and on-base percentage, as well as next to last in total bases, home runs, and sacrifice flies. Nor has he given up an earned run for the staff with the second-worst ERA in the national league.
Baker still shows the same fire he did when the Cubs were winning, but, unfortunately for him, none of his players seem to share his passion. Baker, long regarded as one of the best managers in the game for always standing up for his guys, has stuck by his policy of not calling out his players publicly. Baker has said in the past that he thinks challenging his players humiliates them and keeps them from performing at an optimal level. But Baker may want to reconsider his Mr. Nice Guy strategy or he will be the best manager of players' egos who does not have a job in the majors.
Time may have already run out on Baker, so he will most likely stick to his guns and continue to defend his players, to a fault. That is what a good manager will do. But while Baker may not choose to name names and demand accountability, it may be time someone else in the Cubs organization did. Ownership and management, however, should realize that they should not start with Dusty. The problem is on the field. And in the training room.
Almost like clockwork, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood have spent most of the season on the disabled list. Add MVP-caliber star Lee to the walking wounded list, and it is no wonder Baker has had trouble scratching out wins. Take away half a starting rotation and the biggest bat in the lineup, and no team is going to play winning baseball. But the Cubs' slide has been even worse than most would expect with a few guys on the shelf. They have sunk to new lows, consistently fielding poorly, running poorly and barely hitting. The easy way out would be for management to satiate fans' thirst for blood by using Baker as a scapegoat, but that won't fix their problems. As one Cub Executive said recently, "God couldn't manage this team."
By Kurt T. Poway on 7/8/2006