Two Men, Two Different Directions

By John Shea
Updated: March 16, 2008

FLORIDA — Barack and Dusty in ’08. Is that the ticket? One thing’s for sure: They’ll be rooting for each other.

Dusty Baker is pulling for Barack Obama to beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain to win the White House, and Obama wouldn’t mind if Baker’s Cincinnati Reds made some noise in the National League Central, even when playing Obama’s hometown Chicago Cubs.

After all, Obama’s allegiance is to the White Sox. “He’s a brilliant man, a different man, but a regular guy,” Baker said from Florida in a phone interview. “I’m impressed with him.”

The sentiment is mutual, which is why Obama had Baker give an opening speech at his San Francisco campaign rally in November. At the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Baker spoke for six minutes about how he got to know Obama and why he supports him.

When Baker managed the Cubs, he dined with the Illinois senator during spring training in Arizona, McCain’s home base. A mutual buddy, then-Cubs coach Gary Matthews Sr., got them together by inviting Obama to Baker’s place, telling Baker, “This guy’s going places.”

They hit it off, and Obama took Baker’s phone number and a few years later, while pursuing this leader-of-the-free-world gig, had a staffer contact him to speak at the November rally.

“I said sure,” Baker said. “Man, I’ve got to help this man and endorse this man. He’s what we need.”

The Reds thought the same about Baker. They sought a big-name manager to help reverse their fortunes after seven consecutive losing seasons, and Baker accepted a three-year contract and is the Reds’ first African American manager in their 127-year history.

On that note, the U.S. has been around 231 years, and Obama would be its first African American president.

During his November speech, Baker said, “Very few people you meet in your life transcend all colors, and after awhile, you don’t see the color of the man. You just see the man. … I love the man.”

Obama’s road to the White House hit a few weeks back when he lost three of four states to Clinton, including Ohio, Baker’s new baseball home. Cleveland is where Larry Doby became the first American League African American player and where Frank Robinson became the majors’ first African American manager. Cincinnati didn’t have a minority manager until 1993 — Tony Perez was fired after 44 games.

Owner Marge Schott was behind the firing, the same Marge Schott who was suspended for one year by baseball for using racial slurs. Now the Reds are owned by Bob Castellini, who’s a huge George W. Bush fan and got the president to throw out the first pitch before the opener in 2006, Castellini’s first year as owner.

“Hey, it’s a conservative state, but people like who they like,” Baker said. “My owner’s a Bush person. That’s his prerogative. He’s Catholic. I’m Baptist. He plays golf. I don’t. That’s what makes the world go around.”

Baker praised Castellini and the front office for “believing in me and believing I can take the team where they want to go, where I want to go. I think we can get it done a lot sooner than a lot of people think.”

Baker made lasting first impressions at his first two managing stops, leading the 1993 Giants to 103 victories and the 2003 Cubs to the National League Championship Series. “I want to continue that and enhance it some,” Baker said.

Having experienced Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, Baker is plenty prepared to deal with his newest resident superstar, Ken Griffey Jr., and is pleased the team exercised Adam Dunn’s option ($13.5 million) and signed closer Francisco Cordero (four years, $48 million).

He welcomes the opportunity to work with young position players, notably outfielder Jay Bruce (widely considered the top minor-leaguer in 2007), but pitching remains an issue, and Baker seems optimistic the rotation won’t crumble again beyond Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo.