Sometimes the easy explanation is the correct one. And sometimes the easy explanation is … too easy.
The too-easy explanation for the Cubs’ failures in 2003 and 2004 is that manager Dusty Baker wasn’t good at his job, that he ruined the arms of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, and that, whenever a crime against baseball was committed anywhere, there was only one person of interest.
A better explanation is that the Marlins, who beat the Cubs in the 2003 National League Championship Series, were loaded with talent and were the better team. A better explanation is that Wood and Prior got injured because injuries happen, something both pitchers have taken pains to point out over the years. A better explanation is that the 2004 team collapsed in on itself because of general unpleasantness in the clubhouse, which spilled over into confrontations between players and broadcasters Steve Stone and Chip Caray. But what fun is that explanation when there’s a scapegoat wearing wristbands and sucking on a toothpick?
Sometimes good things happen to good people. Baker, 73, finally winning a World Series in his third stab at it is one of them. The Astros dispatched the Phillies in six games, and it was very nice to see their manager get his due. If you, like me, have a hard time forgiving Houston for the 2017 cheating scandal that brought shame to the game, Baker’s part in guiding the franchise to a title eases the anger a bit. The Astros hired him in 2020 to bring class and grace to an organization that had neither. Was it a calculated public-relations move meant to take away some of the taint from the sign-stealing scandal? Sure it was. The Astros used Baker, but then he turned around and used them.
After 25 years of trying, after previous managerial stops in San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati and Washington, he finally did what some Cubs fans thought was impossible.
What Baker, a Black man, put up with in Chicago was appalling. There was the uncomfortable stuff, the radio-talk show hosts who mocked his wristbands, his toothpicks and his fondness for saying “Dude’’ and “You know what I mean?” And then there was the ugly stuff, some of it overtly racial, where you didn’t have to read between the lines. In 2005, Baker told me that he had been receiving particularly nasty letters.
“(One) guy wrote that he hoped I would hurry up and get my cancer back and die so the Cubs could get a real manager,” he said.
Fans at Wrigley Field began booing him so loudly and so regularly that he asked his wife and young son not to attend games. His teams struggled in 2005 and 2006, and he didn’t go along with the organization’s suggestion to play young players. That also angered fans, who were ready for another approach. There were racist letters, too, which Baker tried to downplay, saying he had watched Hank Aaron deal with worse. But that didn’t make it right.
His treatment was an embarrassment to those of us who thought a man of his bearing and accomplishments deserved better. We wanted him to know our city was better than that, but we had to face the hard question of whether it really was.
Over the years, some of us have tried to push against the prevailing opinion that Baker wasn’t a good manager, but the best way for history to be rewritten was for him to win a title. It’ll be difficult for certain Cubs fans to argue Baker’s ineptitude now in the face of the Astros’ success, but I don’t doubt their persistence, given their obsession with him all these years later. I swear that some fans still get more agitated about him than animated about the Cubs’ 2016 World Series title. I’ll leave that to the mental-health experts.
Baker didn’t have the success he and fans wanted in Chicago. He finished 322-326 in four seasons. Somehow, someway, public opinion decided he was the reason his teams fell short. Every manager takes abuse. This one seemed to get extra helpings of it and continued to long after he was gone. It seemed disproportionate, especially given his track record as a manager and as a human being.
That’s why it was so satisfying to see him finally snatch from his detractors their only real weapon: his lack of a World Series title. In truth, he didn’t need that title to prove he was a good manager. Baseball people already knew that. But it was wonderful all the same to see a nice guy finish first.