WASHINGTON D.C. – All that the man in the opposing dugout received over the past 11 months, monetarily and through praise, could have been his.
Before Cubs fans “Embraced The Target,” they would say “In Dusty We Trusty.”
Forgetting so fast? Let’s take a trip back 14 years ago.
This theme had its own website, signs, and T-Shirts. It was a measure of the excitement among Cubs fans for the big name manager, arguably the biggest since the team picked up Leo Durocher in the 1960s.
His “Why Not Us” statement at his introductory news conference invigorated a fan base that had just one playoff win in 19 years. Baker’s cool attitude with fans and players made him a change of pace around Wrigley Field that was appreciated by all.
His first season was an unforseen breakthrough. A collection of crafty veterans coupled with a young pitching staff along with a few key trade deadline acquisitions helped the Cubs surge in the late summer and early fall to a surprise NL Central title.
Kerry Wood and Mark Prior’s pitching led the team to an upset of the Braves in the National League Division Series, the Cubs’ first playoff series win in 95 years. They raced out to a 3-1 lead against the Marlins in the NLCS and returned to Wrigley Field on October 14, 2003 to end what was then a 58-year pennant drought.
You know the rest.
Baker’s Cubs came five outs from the World Series before the roof figuratively caved in. A late collapse in 2004 in the Wild Card race would signal the beginning of the end for Baker, who was fired after 66-96 season 2006.
So close was this manager to becoming an icon with the Cubs, but it wasn’t meant to be. Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum, Rick Renteria all tried to make it happen before Joe Maddon did two years into his tenure.
But outside of Joe, no manager struck a cord with this generation of Cubs fans like Baker. His style was quite different from those before him, he led the Cubs on an unforgettable run then fell out of favor with fans over various managerial decisions. A lot has happened in 14 years with Baker and the Cubs, but the memories of those times on the North Side have been brought front and center for just a bit as Dusty’s Nationals host the Cubs to start the NLDS on Friday night.
“Yeah, there’s always extra emotion,” said Baker of facing the Cubs in the playoffs. “I’ve got a couple former teams (big smile) in the way, and you get to the World Series, and I got some extra motivation against the Yankees, too. They beat my team when I was a kid, the Dodgers, and they beat me when I was a manager on the Dodgers.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got motivation with a few teams.”
Naturally the Cubs are one of them, and it would be fitting if he was able to finally snap his personal postseason drought against them. Baker’s last playoff series win as a manager was the 2003 NLDS against the Braves, since then losing two division series and a Wild Card game with the Reds then the first round series last year to the Dodgers in Washington.
Maddon will be the one to try to knock him out of the playoffs again. It was he that was able to conquer the challenge that Baker came so close to accomplishing in a star-crossed fall 14 years ago.
“The thing about Dusty, if anybody would ever compare, I’ve always heard how good he is with his players. That’s the thing that has always stood out to me when I first started doing this.I didn’t know Dusty. Worked against him in 2002 World Series. A lot of the guys knew him,” said Maddon. “There were always platitudes regarding his ability to connect with the group in the clubhouse, so that’s always been — and if I get compared in that way, in any way, shape, or form, I’ll take it.”
Indeed the two managers are compared in Cubs history in some ways positively. Dusty now hopes to add to that by ending their reign as world champions.