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Dusty Baker just can't help but tempt fate
Dusty Baker is nothing if not stubborn.
With the Marlins in town, a gentle breeze blowing in off the lake and noontime showers cooling Wrigley Field to a near-perfect 72 degrees, the only controversy on the Cubs manager's schedule for Tuesday should have been his All-Star snub of Florida rookie pitcher Dontrelle Willis.
But like we said, Baker does not let go easily. And when he spotted a familiar face from his days in San Francisco, it was the only opening he needed.
Sitting in the dugout 90 minutes before game time, without any prompting, Baker elected to revisit the controversy that one local paper dubbed his "Wilting White Man" theory.
"I said the same thing 12 years ago," Baker said. And then he laughed.
You have to wonder about a man who sticks his head in the lion's mouth over and over, especially someone like Baker, who's been around sports long enough to remember how badly the same trick turned out for Al Campanis and Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder on the first try. Both lost their jobs and their reputations.
But whether he's braver, dumber or simply convinced that science will catch up to him on this issue someday, Baker keeps tempting fate. Maybe because his sense of loyalty won't let him do otherwise.
The same quality that won him the title of best manager in a recent players' poll is the reason Baker won't stop talking about race, whether it's to point out the double standards he believes are still applied to black and Latino ballplayers or, as in this case, to pass along his views without checking the facts first.
A factual lapse
To recap: Saturday, on a typically hot and humid July afternoon in Chicago, Baker began talking about the rigors of day games at Wrigley Field and wound up delivering a brief address packed with pseudo-science and revisionist history.
"You have to pretend that you're a construction worker out there. You have no choice. It's easier for me. It's easier for most Latin guys and it's easier for most minority people. Most of us come from heat. ... We were brought over here for the heat, right? Isn't that history? Weren't we brought over here because we can take the heat?"
The funny thing is that it's true in Baker's case -- figuratively speaking, of course.
No manager in baseball is better at shielding his players from management and the media, with the possible exception of the Yankees' Joe Torre.
A baseball executive who knows Baker said his greatest asset as a manager is being able to convince ballplayers that he always has their best interests at heart. Part of it is because Baker was a ballplayer himself; he knows only too well what it's like to ride the bench for a week, then get sent in to pinch-hit against Randy Johnson in the late innings of an important game.
That explains why Baker goes to great lengths not to embarrass his guys on the field or sell them out in the newspapers. It also explains why he rarely has a problem getting everybody on the team to pull in the same direction.
Baker took on a tough job covering Sammy Sosa's back in the wake of the corked-bat caper a month ago, and an even tougher one trying to persuade the rest of the ballclub to pick up the slack while their star slugger served a seven-game suspension.
Baker is considered such a motivational genius, in fact, that no sooner had he espoused his "Wilting White Man" theory than columnists and callers to talk-radio shows were sure it was some kind of ploy.
Despite Sosa's return three weeks ago, the Cubs have remained in a tailspin, prompting speculation that Baker was removing a convenient alibi from a ballclub used to laying down in the dog days of summer, or else trying to force the media to focus on him instead of his team.
"Neither," he said, standing in the hallway to the Cubs clubhouse after what turned out to be a tough 4-3 loss to the Marlins.
He was in no mood for excuses, for himself or his ballclub. Baker, who will manage the National League All-Stars after taking the Giants to the World Series last fall, had just left the interview room behind. He was impressed watching Willis pitch for the first time and said so. He'd also seen his once-reliable bullpen lose another game, but refused to lay the blame there.
It's easy to see why his ballplayers love him.
"The one thing he always said is stay together," Sosa said. "When you play for somebody like that, believe me, you're willing to do anything."
The feeling is mutual, but that's not what set Baker off the other day. There are a few things about which he will not be swayed; not now, not ever. Race, like loyalty, is one of them.
"I was asked a question and I answered it the way I honestly feel," he said. "I felt that way years ago. I still feel that way. I think people are taking this way too far."
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press.