(Note: Originally posted on The Sports Oratory)
A Dusty Farewell
After four years in Chicago, Dusty Baker was shown the door by General Manager Jim Hendry, who, regrettably, did not follow Dusty on the way out. Baker completed his descent by helpin the Cubs to an abysmal 66-96 record, worst in the National League. Even worse than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who actually managed to beat the Cubs in 6 out of the last 7 games they played together. I guess if you're looking for a way to get fired, getting swept by Pirates in late August is a good way to get your foot in (or in this case, out) the door. It's interesting (and depressing) to look at where the Cubs are now, compared to where they were when Dusty showed up.
Dusty Baker was named manager of the Cubs before the 2003 season. 2002 saw a similar season as 2006, with the Cubs 67-95 and finishing in 5th in the division (Note that they still managed to finish ahead of the Pirates). 2003 came around, and thanks to the hitting of Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou, and the pitching of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, the Cubs went 88-74 and actually won the NL Central, their first division title since 1989 and first playoff appearance since 1998. After defeating the Braves in 5 games, the Cubs went on to perform one of the more memorable choke jobs in recent memory (Although the Yankees did a fantastic job of eclipsing it a year later against the Red Sox) by going up 3-1 on the Florida Marlins in the NLCS, but losing game 5, and leading Game 6 in the 8th inning, only to have this guy:
Prevent Moises Alou from catching a foul ball. That single event was followed by a complete collapse by Mark Prior and the rest of the Cubs pitching staff, as they gave up 8 runs in that inning and ended up losing 8-3. While many people like to blame Steve Bartman for what happened in 2003 (I mean, even I wouldn't be opposed to punching him in the face), the fact remains that the Cubs still had Kerry Wood pitching for them in Game 7, and were actually up 5-3 after 4 innings. Of course, the Cubs end up blowing that lead, and lost 9-6, sending the Marlins on to the World Series to beat the Yankees.
That was pretty much the highlight of the Dusty Baker era in Chicago. 2004 saw similar success for the Cubs, and they actully improved on their 2003 record and finished at 89-73, but a collapse in the last few weeks of the season saw them drop out of playoff contention. Along with yet another disappearing act by the Cubs when it matters, Sammy Sosa was on bad terms with the team and the city due to leaving a game early. Not sitting on the bench leaving, walking out of Wrigley Field and getting in his car early. He would get shipped to Baltimore at the end of the season, where he would struggle for a year (Not that the new steroids policy had anything to do with that), and is now out of baseball.
In 2005 we saw the beginning of the end for Dusty, as the team underachieved to a 79-83 record and a 4th place divisional finish. The Cubs had attempted to increase the talent on the team, bringing in a big name in Nomar Garciaparra at the trading deadline in 2004. In 2005 the Cubs were able to reap the benefits from the trade as Nomar injured his groin a few games into the season and went on the disabled list until August. Garciaparra would then go on to sign with the L.A. Dodgers at the end of the season. One of the few bright spots for the team was the signing of former Cub-killer and Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee. Lee promptly had a career year, and was in the running for MVP for most of the season. However, the lack of talent both on offense and in the bullpen resulted in a fantastically mediocre for the Cubs. In addition, many felt the season went to waste due to the numerous injuries by starting pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
So, in 2006, it was to the surprise of no one that both Prior and Wood would start the season on the DL once again. Wood, in fact, would only start 4 games all year, earning a stellar $3.25 million per start (and Roger Clemens thought he had a good deal!). Prior played in several more games, but eventually ended up back on the DL for the rest of the season with a Cy Young-like 1-6 record and a 7.00+ ERA. In addition to these injuries, the Cubs lost Derrek Lee for most of the season when he broke his wrist after a collision play at first base after only playing 14 games. He was rushed back from injury, and after playing for a short time, went back on the DL due to inflammation in the wrist. He would play in a few more games later on in the season before missing the remainder of the schedule due to personal issues.
The Cubs started out well at 9-5, winning three of their first five series, including a big sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals. Once the Lee injury occurred, however, the team would just completely collapse, and lose 82 of their next 129 games before finishing up the season with their afore mentioned 66-96 record. Boasting one of the top payrolls in the league, the Cubs paid more for each victory than any team in baseball not named the New York Yankess (It cost $1,430,674 for each Cub victory. For the record, a complete list of cost per win for every team can be found here
. People might hate the Marlins owner, but he's very cost efficient). The Cubs fell flat on their face, paying lots of people too much money to either underperform or not perform at all. One of Baker's more glaring mistakes during the season was in the form of this guy:
For whatever reason, Baker and the Cubs organization actually came to their senses and traded Perez, but not before he spent a good part of the season once again reminding us that not only is there actually someone on the team who is actually a worse hitter than Henry Blanco, but that there are few people in the entire major leagues that can perform as poorly as Perez at the plate with any kind of consistency.
All in all, it was one of the more disappointing Cubs seasons in recent memory, which really says something considering this is the Chicago Cubs we're talking about. On paper, the Cubs had the players needed to win the NL Central. On the field, the team did what they do best: underachieved to the fullest. It's hard to blame the whole season on injuries considering the Florida Marlins were able to win 78 games with Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis, and a bunch of minor leaguers. The team had no drive, no motivation, no killer instinct, no will to win. At some point in time, the manager of the team has to be able to get a team up for a game, ready to perform, ready to win, every day. Dusty Baker didn't do that. He didn't make good personnel decisions (Neifi Perez we already discussed, but you can't find a better first baseman replacement than John Mabry and Phil Nevin?). Baker might be a good manager (Although all those years with Barry Bonds will do wonders for your image), but he wasn't in Chicago. The team needed a change fundamentally, and fundamental changes have to come from the big guys at the top of the ladder. We've already seen team president Andy McPhail step down, and now we see Dusty Baker step down as well. The Cubs don't have to be a bad team. They have a lot of young players with a lot of potential, and some skilled veterans in the mix as well. The talent is there, they just need someone who can make them want to win.
Hopefully in the near future, we can see this man once again donning the blue-and-white pinstripes for the North Siders: