Starting off sluggish, the Reds were a .500 team in mid-May. Since losing 4-0 to the New York Yankees on May 18th, the Reds are 41-21—the best record in baseball during that time frame. And they leapfrogged the defending World Series champion Cardinals into first place.
As of this writing, they have a 60-40 record, tied with the Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees for the best record in all of baseball.
A solid season from the Reds is hardly the surprise that, say, Oakland or Pittsburgh are giving baseball. Several members of the media, including 23 experts at ESPN, predicted the Reds would make the playoffs this season.
The Reds have talent of course. Joey Votto is an MVP candidate. Brandon Phillips is still a dynamic second baseman. Jay Bruce, Ryan Ludwick and Todd Frazier all have pop. And the rotation led by Johnny Cueto and the bullpen anchored by Aroldis Chapman are solid.
But how much credit can be placed at the feet of Mr. Baker? Successfully juggling his lineups and solving his early bullpen issues have to count positively for Baker. And so does the culture of winning now evident in Cincinnati.
A division title or wild-card berth this year would mean the second playoff appearance in three years for Cincinnati, after the team did not play a playoff game between 1995 and 2010. Yes, there was a one-game wild-card playoff against the Mets in 1999, but that did not count as a postseason game.
The Reds are now a winning team and an organization that can realistically shoot for the postseason, which was not the case before Baker's arrival.
And that is Baker's greatest legacy.
Three times in his managerial career, he took moribund franchises and transformed them into playoff teams.
In 1993, he took over the reins of the San Francisco Giants from Roger Craig. The team was depressed and losing and almost moved to Tampa Bay. The Giants won 103 games in Baker's first year as manager but were unfairly denied access to the postseason because of existing divisional alignments and the absence of a wild-card slot. (Why was Atlanta considered part of the West?)
Between 1997 and 2002, the Giants either won a playoff spot or contended until the last weekend five times. Granted, Baker had help from a guy named Barry Bonds, but lots of teams had great superstars and did not make the playoffs.
How many times did Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez stay home in October?
After the 2002 World Series, Baker left the Giants and took over a Cubs team that lost 95 games the year before. They took the NL Central in 2003 and won their only postseason series since the 1908 World Series.
And now he has the Reds contending after a generation of losing.
Among all-time managerial wins, he is ranked No. 20, just behind Jim Leyland and ahead of Hall of Famers Earl Weaver, Miller Huggins and Al Lopez.
He will probably pass Dick Williams this year, another manager who had a knack for turning teams around.
Amazingly, the only thing missing from Dusty Baker's Hall of Fame resume would seem to be a World Series ring. (He did win one as a player.) And a single World Series title as a manager would have him match the total that Earl Weaver, Leo Durocher and Whitey Herzog each earned over their managerial careers.
Of course, mentioning Baker in the Hall of Fame discussion will get some howls. He probably would already have his World Series title if he handled the pitching staff differently in Games 6 and 7 of the 2002 World Series.
He infamously handed the game ball to Russ Ortiz in the seventh inning in game six, rubbing it in the Angels face. The Angels rallied to win the game.
And, even more damaging, he chose an ineffective Livan Hernandez over the reliable Kirk Rueter to pitch the seventh game. Hernandez got rocked, but Rueter, in relief, shut down the Angels. However, the damage was done, and the Angels won.
In Chicago, he left Mark Prior in too long in the infamous "Bartman Game." The Cubs lost their best chance of winning a pennant in decades. And, in ensuing years, Baker wore out Prior's and Kerry Wood's arms.
He left the team a mess. His managing from the gut and by instinct drove many Giants and Cubs fans crazy, as neither fanbase seemed totally sad to see him leave.
However, a championship added to his resume could make a compelling argument on Baker's behalf for Hall of Fame induction. The Reds have a ways to go before Johnnie B. Baker, Jr. needs to write a Cooperstown speech.
But if he does lead the Reds to a World Series title, he might get the respect he deserves.
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