Dusty Baker was still managing in Cincinnati when he first started seeing himself in the context of the all-time greats.
A Reds clubhouse manager, Mark Stowe, would bring him a lineup card to keep each time he passed a Hall of Famer on the all-time wins list. There were more than a few of those times, too, and — keep in mind — this was 2008 through 2013. Before Baker’s stint with the Nationals. Before his stint with the powerhouse Astros.
Baker passed Whitey Herzog (1,281) while with the Reds. Later he passed Al Lopez (1,410), Earl Weaver (1,480), Dick Williams (1,571) and Tommy Lasorda (1,599). By the time the close of the 2021 regular season arrived — and an American League Division Series against Tony La Russa and the White Sox beckoned — Baker was 12th on the career list for wins with 1,987.
All right, so he’s more than 800 wins behind La Russa, an active Hall of Famer who sits second on the list. And Baker still is hunting his first World Series as a manager, a milestone most — though not all — of the 23 skippers in Cooperstown reached at least once.
But guess who — their teams still going at it — stumped for Baker Sunday before the Sox’ 12-6 victory in Game 3 at Guaranteed Rate Field?
“I think he has [Hall of Fame] credentials already,” La Russa said. “I mean, he has won divisions. He has taken teams to the postseason.”
Let’s not understate it: These Astros are the 11th team Baker has managed to the playoffs and his eighth division champion. He’s the only manager in major league history to win division titles with five different clubs, and he ranks 10th — eight spots behind La Russa — in playoff wins. He’s also a three-time Manager of the Year.
“And I also think just like with Joe Torre, you know, you can’t discount the kind of playing career he had,” La Russa said. “And the fact that he stayed in and continues to coach — and any team he coaches for, players love playing for him — he sounds like a Hall of Famer to me.”
Torre might be the wrong comparison to make. He was a nine-time All-Star as a player, seven more selections than Baker achieved. And — oh, yeah — Torre managed a Yankees dynasty to four World Series crowns.
Lopez is a better one. He was a two-time All-Star. (Do player credentials even matter in this discussion?) The teams he managed in Cleveland and with the White Sox were often very good, but none of them won the whole shooting match.
Another interesting one is Jim Leyland, who isn’t in Cooperstown but has an advocate in old friend La Russa. Leyland won a World Series with the Marlins and had strong, sustained success in both Pittsburgh and Detroit. That’s compelling, but his career record was around .500 and he’s well below Baker on the wins list. Who tops whom?
It’s hard to believe any manager has a stronger case than Baker, whose Astros lead the Sox two games to one in a best-of-five series. If he finally breaks through and wins it all, one must assume the Hall will be a sure thing.
“I’m comfortable in my own skin,” Baker said. “I mean, you guys can talk about it. It’s not in my nature, really, to talk about it too much.”
But he appreciates the support from a longtime rival.
“That was kind of Tony to say,” Baker said. “He actually said those things to me in the past and recently. But that’s something that I don’t really think about too much [with] the task at hand, which is winning and also going as far as we can go in winning the world championship — [do that] and everything will take care of itself.”
“I don’t know if you knew me as a player, as a person, but now is not the time to be thinking about self.”
But there’s only one way to satisfy that very same self.
“I’m spoiled,” Baker said. “I just like to win. That is my favorite thing to do, is to win.”
Thirty or so years ago, he recalled, daughter Natosha asked him why he always wanted to win. Why did he have to win at jacks or tiddlywinks against his own kid?
“I’m supposed to,” was the only way he could think to answer.
He’s still doing it. And has done so long enough that — would you believe it? — he and La Russa have a head-to-head regular-season record of 104-104.
Man, 208 games? Maybe there’ll be a bunch more.