A big part of me wonders what the general reaction will be from Reds fans the first time the newest manager of the franchise calls for his first bunt. Will it be with Billy Hamilton, the near prototypical bunt-machine, batting at the top of the order? Will fans lose it, frustrated yet again, and be in outrage that no philosophical direction has truly been altered?
Will they stand and applaud it as an homage to Dusty Baker, King of the Bunts, their former manager?
The Reds cut ties with Baker early this morning and, well, I suppose you could call it predictable. With Dusty entering into the final season of his contract, 2014 was always set to be tenuous between he and management. It would be hard to imagine the Reds going with a lame-duck manager of Dusty's stature and age without a vote-of-confidence style contract extension, and it would be very hard to have imagined Dusty being willing to accept that level of limbo, either.
Make or break time forced its hand, and the Reds broke.
It's sad in many ways. I would have loved to see what the present would have held for both Baker and the Reds franchise had Joey Votto's record breaking pace of 2012 not been abruptly thwarted by a knee injury mid-season. I still love to dream about what 2012 should have been with a healthy Votto at 1B and a brilliant - and healthy - Johnny Cueto emerging from Game 1 of the NLDS unscathed. It's one thing to complain about injuries when recounting history, but it's certainly another thing entirely to mention them when they happened to the best hitter and pitcher in this generation of the franchise in the same half of the same division winning season. That's tough to weather, and it's tough to do anything other than shrug when considering it.
It's tough to pin that unfortunate set of circumstances on Baker, and it's tough that they came at the crux of the Reds' portion of his managerial career. It's tough, but that's the business of baseball. Contracts are awarded based on the "what have you done" portion of one's career, but whether they're seen out is decided by the "what will you do" prognosticators employed by upper management, and it became increasingly clear that the ownership group and General Manager decided that a new set of eyes was needed to see this project clear.
As manager of the Reds, Dusty showed many of the similar qualities he featured with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs, where both instances saw him lead teams from bad to better, flirt with greatness, but ultimately never manage to get over the hump. I've always liked to equate him to being a CEO of a private company that's perfect for taking a company public: he operates magnificently with his employees well enough to have them be noticed by the public as a whole for the first time, but the moment he becomes accountable by public shareholders, things begin to falter.
Dusty Baker is the only manager most of these Cincinnati Reds have ever known, and it will be quite interesting to see how they react to their team parting ways with him. Dusty's an endearing, genuine person, and I imagine there will be more than a handful of players on this team who will feel as if they have let him down. They'll get over it, of course, as they're professionals with a job to do, but there's much about that that leads me to believe that Bryan Price will be the primary target as the next manager. As I said just days ago, this is the kind of team and roster that you tweak, you tune up, but you don't break down completely, and promoting Price is the perfect component of continuity to pair with shaking things up enough to allow for new growth.
I'm indebted to Dusty Baker for teaching me much of what I've learned about baseball over the past six seasons. His management style has been effective enough for him to win 1,671 games (509 with the Reds), go to 7 postseasons, and reach a Game 7 in a World Series, but it's also been divisive enough to make me scratch my head and think about things. His unabashed faith in batting speedy CFs at the top of batting orders taught me the concept of WAR and how OBP played a vital role in runs scored, his unwillingness to hit two left handed batters next to each other prompted my initial research into theories on lineup construction, and his often odd lineup decisions featuring little-used veterans ensured that I now know how to value, and overvalue, certain small sample sizes.
Dusty was fantastic for the Reds franchise, and as a fan, I'm obliged to thank him for the job he did. He managed over the best 4 season stretch the franchise has seen in my lifetime, and there were countless ways in which he was directly responsible for my enjoyment of it. He's also leaving in a scenario that means his successor won't have shoes to fill, and that's probably for the better.
I hope Dusty gets plenty of time to fish and watch his son, Darren, through his upcoming high school years. I hope he finds comfort in the lack of stress and weight from the "FARRRDUSTY" clan, and I hope he can sip bourbon quietly with -ManBearPig and talk about the good times in peace. When I see the first sac bunt of the 2014 season, I'll remember Jay Bruce's 2010 division clincher, have a chuckle, and hope that whomever is the new manager knows more about WPA than the previous one.