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Dusty's Legacy

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It turned out a lot better than it was supposed to.


In my house, there is a room which I use as an office. Here's a picture.


On the right is an old pennant, a Johnny Bench bobblehead, and two boxes of Vott-os. I'm a Reds fan, by the way.

The stuff I really like is on the bookshelf. Let's take a look.


I'm a pretty private guy, by nature, and a bookshelf allows one of the most intimate views into a person's soul that I know of. It feels pretty naked, honestly, to see all this on the screen. A person wanting to study this bookshelf long enough would correctly surmise that I like Hunter Thompson, Eric Davis, and Jesus.

This next picture gives a detailed view of one shelf in particular.


In one of my favorite coincidental occurrences in baseball history, Earl Weaver and Stan Musial passed away on the same day about nine months ago. I'm not happy either man died, of course. I do, however, feel some personal admiration for each, and I'm glad that for as long as I'm able to think about baseball and remember its history, these two men will be linked to each other.

In the snapshot above, you'll see an old Musial figurine on the far left, and an Earl Weaver biography on the far right. In the middle is a Musial bio, with the greatest pound-for-pound baseball book of all time just a few slots to its left (Weaver on Strategy). More than being books or the artifacts, these items represent two of the baseball legends in my household, non-Cincinnati division.

Stan Musial was my old man's favorite player of all time and my dad passed the love of baseball to me, using Stan the Man as an occasional prop. One of my childhood memories is sitting on the living room floor, listening to a record in which Joe Gariagiola interviewed Musial on how to hit (complete with frame-by-frame pictures of Musial's swing on the jacket insert!). How absurd, looking back, that there existed such a thing, especially given the *unique* batting style Musial used.


You'd be arrested for child abuse if you coached your young players to do the same. Nonetheless, Musial is one of the all-time greats, and criminally underrated, to boot.

Earl Weaver has a plaque in the Hall of Fame, too, and he had his own style. His on-field talent was inversely proportional to Musial's and cursed as frequently as Musial didn't, but he was a winner all the same. I learned of Weaver through an 80's-era PC game that bore his name and grew to love baseball history the same way, and I spent many, many adolescent hours absorbed in that game.

As I mentioned earlier, Weaver co-wrote a book on strategy that is well worth finding a copy of if you've never read it. He details his thoughts on all parts of managing the game, on the field and off. He's been lauded as a hero of the sabermetric community due to his abhorrence of the bunt and for the way he despised the perma-growth of the pitching staff.

Not for nothing, but one of the facts you learn about Weaver's strategies through his words is how he would use matchup data to guide his decision making, sometimes banking on a history of just 4 or 5 at-bats to justify an otherwise absurd choice. Were Weaver managing or writing today, he'd be lambasted by the cognescenti for his small sample size reliances, just as Musial's batting style might have been drummed out of him by a college of coaches.

It's doubtful that a book by or about Dusty Baker will ever grace my bookshelf. Not because he wouldn't be an interesting study, but he neither hit as well nor won as frequently as either Stan or Earl. More damning perhaps, is that Baker already feels far too familiar. Always quick with a detailed and lengthy response to a reporter's query or worse, an insipid Tweet, Baker invited the local fan into his office to scan his bookshelf, so to speak. It was way too intimate of a relationship for a guy we were never all that sure we were into.

This is not a justification for his dismissal, just an admission that I had grown a bit...weary of the man.

But let's pause here, and take a trip back in time. The day Baker was hired, my dad was over at my house to help me with a project. I broke the news to him, and we angrily fantasized about renouncing our allegiances to the Reds. Pure absurdity, of course. Blood is Cincinnati Red, and is thicker than mere failure or bad hiring decisions. I was particularly livid because of Baker's "well-known" tendencies to ruin young arms and to stifle the career paths of promising young hitters. The Reds had sucked for forever but had finally built a farm system, and we were on the cusp of reaping the fruits of Votto, Bruce, Bailey, Cueto, et al. And now Baker was going to ruin it all...

It never happened that way. In fact, a person could do a doctoral dissertation on the big-league grooming of Jay Bruce in contrast to the conventional wisdom of how Dusty would inevitably and impatiently botch such a streaky hitter's growth. Is Bruce the best Bruce he could be? We'll never know, but we do know that Baker gave him way more chances than the average fan would have. Bruce has responded by improving every year.

Similarly, a Dusty-managed team, mostly staffed by youngish arms, completed the 2012 season with 161 of 162 starts made by the Opening Day rotation. We witnessed either an evolution of a stubborn old man, or a thorough rebuke of the Baseball Prospectusers and embittered Cubs fans who swore that Baker was the devil in double knits. He wasn't, and it was awesome.

Not to say that Baker was perfect, nor that the sabermetricians were all wrong. For example, the bunts. Oh God, the bunts. And Corey Patterson. And Corey Patterson's bunts. But the net sum was a man who knew how to take the long view, and who did things a bit differently than most, and who tended to win a few more games than he lost.

If the pitch against Hanigan was called a ball last year, or if Latos doesn't groove one against Posey...or more recently, if Frazier's blast was just a few feet to the right...Dusty's still in that dugout, calling the shots his way. Baseball has always been a game of inches, and when the inches start breaking against you, then you grow tired of the men in charge. It might not be fair, but it was time to part ways.

What's Dusty's legacy? Like Weaver and Musial, he did things his way--and it was a bit off-center sometimes, just like those two. Unlike those two, he wasn't quite a transcendent talent. That's not to his shame; few of us are. But he was pretty good for a pretty long while.

What's Dusty's legacy? He showed the know-it-alls, myself included, that we've got a lot to learn.

Fare well, Johnny B. Please go gently into the night. And don't forget to turn off the lights when you go.