Sports Vault: The Reds hoped for a quick turnaround under Dusty Baker. It didn't quite work out.
In hindsight, 'maybe he wasn't so bad after all'
John Fay | WCPO contributor
5:00 AM, Oct 3, 2017
CINCINNATI -- In winter of 2007, when Reds owner Bob Castellini wanted a name, the biggest in baseball was Dusty Baker.
As manager, Baker had taken the San Francisco Giants to the World Series and the brink of the World Championship. Baker had likewise shepherded the Chicago Cubs to the cusp of the World Series.
He was working on his vineyard outside of Sacramento and moonlighting at ESPN when Castellini dispatched then-general manager Wayne Krivsky to see if Baker was interested in getting back in the dugout.
Baker, of course, was.
What followed was the Reds' most successful run since the one that ended in the 1990 World Series. It was not always smooth going for Baker. He was the first Reds manager of the internet era, and fans loved to question his every move.
Baker had orchestrated quick turnarounds in San Francisco and Chicago. The Giants won 103 games his first year. The Cubs won the division his first year.
It didn't happen so quickly in Cincinnati. The Reds had had seven straight losing seasons when Baker arrived. The club was two years into the Castellini ownership. Dan O'Brien, who was GM when Castellini bought the club, was trying to rebuild the organization from the ground up. He talked about a three-, four-year process.
Castellini wanted a quick turnaround. That's why he brought in Krivsky and fired O'Brien, and that's why he brought in Baker instead of staying with Pete Mackanin.
But improvement under Baker was slow the first two years. The team won 74 games in '08 and 78 in '09.
Baker seemed like an odd fit at times. He was known as a manager who preferred veterans over young players -- something he bristled at -- and the Reds' success would depend on the young players.
The odd twist was that when success came, it was largely on the backs of the young players. The Reds ended their stretch of nine straight losing seasons in 2010 with the National League Central title and 91 wins. Joey Votto was the National League Most Valuable Player that year. Jay Bruce hit the home run to clinch the division title, and Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, Mike Leake and Travis Wood, all 24 and under, were key to the rotation.
"I helped raise a lot of those guys," Baker said a few years later. "Still, your heart's with certain people in certain places. ...
"Joey Votto, I was really his first extended manager. Zack Cozart was a rookie. Jay Bruce was a rookie. Brandon (Phillips) had been here. I hear from him. Jay Bruce sent me some photos when he just had his baby.
"You live and die and cry and laugh with a bunch of guys for a long period of time, you form bonds that are forever. We had some very pleasant times here."
Walt Jocketty, who took over for Krivsky, added a mix of veterans, trading for Scott Rolen and Ramon Hernandez. The culture of losing ended. Baker, who takes losses as hard as any manager in baseball, was largely responsible for that.
Baker was a players' manager, but players also respected him and feared him a bit.
The Reds still weren't ready to make a splash in the playoffs in 2010. They were swept in three games by the Philadelphia Phillies.
The team took a step back in 2011, finishing 79-83 and in third place in the NL Central.
But 2012 turned out to be the high-water mark of Baker's tenure in Cincinnati. The team won 97 games and went into the postseason as one of the favorites to make the World Series.
It didn't happen.
The Reds collapsed after winning the first two games of a five-game series with the Giants in San Francisco.
The Reds made the Wild Card and won 90 games the following year, but after a loss in the Pittsburgh one-game format, Baker was dismissed.
"We thought a new voice, a new direction might be necessary," Jocketty said.
Four straight losing seasons have followed under Bryan Price, who was promoted from Baker's pitching coach to manager.
Baker sat out the 2014 and '15 seasons and really wasn't in line for any manager jobs. That changed before the 2016 season, when the Washington Nationals turned to Baker.
The Nats have won the NL East in each of Baker's years, and Reds fans look at him in a different light now.
"I started thinking about way back a long time ago, an old girlfriend told me she missed me after she broke up with me," Baker said upon his first return with Nats. " 'And maybe you weren't so bad after all.' "