10/08/12 8:23 PM ET
Illness gives Dusty new outlook on game, life
By Zack Meisel / MLB.com
An irregular heartbeat forced the skipper to the hospital on Sept. 19, and a mini-stroke kept him there until the end of the month. When he finally returned to the dugout, he did so with a greater appreciation for life outside baseball. He gained some perspective during his health-induced hiatus, as he learned to treasure such things as family, friends and even the moon.
"A lot of times, you just take for granted it's a full moon or half-moon," Baker said on Monday after his Reds took a 2-0 lead over the Giants in the National League Division Series. "Now, all of a sudden, you start seeing the moon."
Baker, 63, is in his 19th season as a Major League manager after a 19-year career as an outfielder in the bigs. This is his sixth appearance in the postseason as the man in charge following four trips as a player. This is far from uncharted waters for him, and his relaxed demeanor illustrates that to a T. He sat at a table before a room full of reporters on Monday, clad in a red-and-black checkered vest, and calmly spoke to the beauty of geese flying over the Ohio River.
This wasn't Baker's first encounter with serious illness, either, having battled his way through prostate cancer late in 2001. Doctors cleared him two weeks before Spring Training the following February.
So although his newfound perspective might stray a bit from his typical outlook, he has stared serious illness in its ghastly face before. That sort of fight has been evident throughout his tenure on the diamond.
"I'm a competitor," he said. "I like to play. That's what drives me. I mean, you realize that your family and your health is more important, but I realized that when I had cancer a few years ago."
Baker's ordeal struck fear into his players and coaches, who persevered through 11 contests without their leader. The Reds clinched a postseason berth the day after Baker landed in the hospital. He rejoined the club in St. Louis for the final series of the regular season.
"Those kinds of things go beyond the game," said Homer Bailey, the scheduled Game 3 starter. "They're like family. We don't have a locker room. We have a clubhouse. A house is where your family lives, and we're around each other more than we're around our own families."
Baker has also grown to appreciate his club's potential. He recalled how earlier this year a kid handed him a sweatshirt that read "The Year of the 12," a nod to not only the calendar year but to the number Baker has sported since he broke in with the Atlanta Braves in 1968. The Reds won 97 games during the regular season, their highest total since 1976. That made it all the more trying for Baker to be tucked away in a hospital bed.
"I wouldn't have chosen to be in the hospital during that time away from the game," Baker said, "but it gives you a different perspective any time that you have an illness or anything. It gives you a true perspective as far as just being appreciative to everything that you have. You appreciate family. You appreciate the moon, the trees, birds, everything. You realize how beautiful life really is.
"Sometimes we complain about things that we shouldn't complain about when you're lying in the hospital. So I'm going to try not to complain anymore about anything."
It's certainly difficult for any fan to complain about the team's standing just a few days into the postseason.
"I've been feeling that it's been a special year from the time we got to Spring Training," Baker said. "I told our guys, 'This is a special year.' As far as appreciating where we are and what's going on here, I've always had that appreciation."