Earlier, I dedicated an entire post to Jim Riggleman, who was a Cubs manager that I simply did not dislike, so I suppose I should share my Dusty Baker story since I actually did think he could stop the revolving carousel of managers for at least longer than his first contract length.
I didn't go out and buy "In Dusty We Trusty" t-shirts or anything, but when Dusty was hired after the Don Baylor debacle, I was thrilled. Dusty was a winner. Dusty was a players' manager who knew how to get the best out his guys. Dusty knew how to handle the huge egos in a clubhouse. Dusty would FINALLY take the Cubs on the road to a World Series victory.
Well, that all turned out to be a crock.
It turns out that Dusty is a pretty cool dude, but it also turns out that being a cool dude does not automatically translate into being a good manager.
Nevertheless, I was a big Dusty supporter in early 2004, even though I did blame him most for the implosion in Game 6 of the NLCS the year before.
A few friends and I went down to St. Louis to see the weekend series with the Cardinals that year and we were very excited about it. The Cubs had handled St. Louis the year before and the 2004 team seemed poised to win the NL Central again with added weapons like Aramis Ramirez (for a full year), Greg Maddux, and Derrek Lee.
The season had already started out a bit strangely for Dusty because the players were already bitching at umpires and Dusty himself had been chastised by the league for using course language while arguing with an umpire on the field. It seems that the new seats behind the plate afforded some rich folks and their kids the opportunity to hear an in-game argument and had voiced their displeasure about Dusty's saucy language to the league office.
The game in St. Louis was close all the way through and the Cubs went into the bottom of the ninth inning tied 3-3 with the heart of the Cardinals batting order coming up. Kyle Farnsworth, summoned to replace Kerry Wood, promptly walked the first batter he faced, Mr. Albert Pujols. Jim Edmonds came up next, so Dusty brought in Kent Mercker to face him. Mercker walked Edmonds.
Now, here came Scott Rolen. Dusty popped himself out of the dugout and called for LaTroy Hawkins. Rolen promptly laid down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners up to second and third, and Dusty ordered the intentional walk of Edgar Renteria. This brought up Reggie Sanders with the bases loaded and only one out (which was handed to the Cubs by way of a sacrifice).
Hawkins induced Sanders to pop up a foul ball for the second out and I began to think the Cubs might live to battle in extra innings. Mike Matheny the all defensive, no-hit catcher came to the plate. Hawkins immediately had him down 0-2 in the count and I really thought they would get out of the mess. Then came ball one. Then ball two. Then ball 3.
Everyone in Old Busch Stadium was screaming something. The Cardinal fans were yelling encouragement to Matheny and jeering La Troy Hawkins. Cubs fans were jeering Mike Matheny or yelling at Hawkins to throw a motherf---in' strike. Ball four. Game over.
I was livid. I am not one of those guys who gets into fights at baseball games, but that night I came as close as I've ever come. If one more dickhead in a Pujols jersey had yelled "1908!" in my face, that dickhead would have been bleeding shortly after and I probably would have gotten to see what the inside of a St. Louis jail looks like.
My friends wanted to go out drinking afterwards and I was fine with that, but I was in no mood to be making decisions. I told them I would go wherever they wanted, but I would not be participating in the decision-making process. As a result, we headed off in a direction I would not have chosen as a starting point, but I followed along as I said I would.
We walked for awhile and after much hunting around, we discovered a couple of places. One, a cool little club with live jazz music and a beer garden, and one was a little hole-in-the-wall, old man bar next door that featured a pool table and a color television above the bar. The little club had a cover charge, so the decision was made to go to the hole-in-the-wall for free.
Again, this would have not been my choice, but I was still not participating in the decision process, nor speaking much at all at this time.
We grabbed a table and a few drinks and started to imbibe, and slowly the pain of the game started to subside. At about this time, I looked up and saw two African-American gentleman talking with a couple of people by the door. I didn't think much of it, but then my friend said, "Is that Dusty?"
I looked again and sure enough, it was Dusty, who had moved to the bar and was talking with the bartender. His buddy had his back to me so I couldn't see who it was, but it was definitely Dusty.
I didn't know what to do. I'm not an autograph guy and I don't generally run into celebrities so I had no idea what to say or do. As I sat there trying to figure out what I would do next, Dusty and his buddy headed out the door, and I thought I had blown the opportunity. But then, Dusty came right back in and was walking straight towards our table.
He approached closer and closer and I had to say something or I would completely blow the chance to meet one of my favorite Cubs at the time, so I dug down deep and came up with, "Hey, tough game, Dusty." I know, its hard to believe that someone could be so witty and articulate on the spot like that.
Dusty looked over and reached out his hand for mine and said, "Yeah - we thought we were going to get them." Then he looked over at my friend, who was wearing a Red Sox hat and said, "Boston B? You're in the wrong town!"
As my friend started explaining that she was a Boston fan but also loved the Cubs and had come down from Wisconsin, I looked over and saw one of my other friends in a conversation with Dusty's buddy, who I could now recognize clearly as Gary Matthews. So there we were chatting with Dusty and Sarge when the television above the bar started playing highlights of that nights game.
We all craned our necks to watch and as Sportscenter showed Farnsworth, Mercker, and Hawkins issuing their walks, Dusty turned to Sarge and said, "Farns, Merck, Hawk... you think someone could throw a f---in' strike."
This immediately elevated Dusty in my eyes because I had been raging on about that very same thing to anyone who would listen just a short time before. It also probably made me stick with Dusty longer than most folks because I knew he was seeing what we were seeing, and he wasn't happy about it. Just because he didn't bitch out a player in the media like Don Baylor didn't mean he wasn't addressing the issue. I'd later realize how foolish that was of me to believe.
We chatted a little more and when their pizza came, they said their good-byes so I shook his hand one last time and said, "Good luck tomorrow and try to watch your mouth around the children, huh?"
He looked me square in the face and said, "Ain't that some f---in' bullshit? What the f--- is that anyway? I'm out there defending my players and I have to deal with that shit?"
"You gotta do, what you gotta do, Dusty," I said.
"F---in' right." He then smiled, turned and headed back to their hotel with their pizza.
That night remains the longest conversation I have ever had with anybody of any degree of fame, and I still count it as one of the coolest experiences of my life.
Of course, everything went downhill for Dusty and the Cubs later that season, and the next, and the next, and most fans hate his guts now. I am not sad he is gone, but I still don't hate him because he was very cool in hanging out with us briefly that night. It's a shame that cool doesn't help you win baseball games.