Dusty can be a winner on field and in health
When it comes to the three teams that Dusty Baker has managed, there are fans still grumbling over their version of a free-wheeling guy who keeps pitchers in games too long, plays Russian roulette with lineups and goes left when they really want him to go right.
There is also Baker's feud with Yankees pitcher Derek Lowe. And, goodness knows, he never exchanged Christmas cards with anybody involved with the St. Louis Cardinals, especially when they were managed by archrival Tony La Russa.
Even so, with apologies to the folks at Sara Lee, nobody doesn't like Johnnie B. "Dusty" Baker Jr.
That's why hearty cheers erupted around the Major Leagues after the 63-year-old Baker returned as manager of his Cincinnati Reds this week after recovering from a mini stroke.
Those in Baker's world should keep applauding, but they also should follow the lead of Reds third baseman Scott Rolen.
"I'm the guy that's worried about his health," Rolen told reporters of his manager, who admits that he isn't 100 percent physically after losing an estimated 22 pounds. "It's great to have him back, but the one thing I told him is, 'I'll keep an eye on you.'"
Good for Rolen. After all, Baker is cherished by the masses, because he is a renaissance man with an instant smile.
He always wears wristbands -- just because. While playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977, he performed the first high five ever (with teammate Glenn Burke at home plate after hitting a home run). He was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves during seven years of the Vietnam War. He stood in the on-deck circle on April 8, 1974, when Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list.
Consider, too, that Baker went from operating as an All-Star player who collected a Gold Glove Award, two Silver Slugger Awards and a World Series ring, to managing efficiently enough to capture three National League Manager of the Year Awards.
A fourth is on the way.
The Reds will finish the season with one of baseball's best records, and it didn't have to be this way for so many reasons.
Injuries were everywhere. It began during the spring, when projected closer Ryan Madson was lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery.
In response, Baker replaced Madson with Aroldis Chapman, and the manager did so by ignoring the pitcher's propensity for wildness -- which isn't the best attribute for a closer. Baker preferred to remember that Chapman consistently throws 100 mph fastballs.
And the results? Chapman joined the Braves' Craig Kimbrel as the most unhittable closers in the game.
Elsewhere, nearly every starter in the Reds' infield has missed significant playing time due to injury, including all-everything first baseman Joey Votto, who was out seven weeks with a bad knee. It didn't matter. Without Votto's potent bat and slick glove, the manager who supposedly misuses pitchers and juggles his lineup too much maneuvered the Reds to a 32-16 record during that stretch.
Not only that, the Reds turned their tight lead in the NL Central lead over the Cardinals into a blowout.
Baker also solidified his tag as a "player's manager" by sticking with Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce through slumps. Both players rewarded Baker's loyalty with clutch moments.
Here's another thing: Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park is a hitter's delight, but the Reds have the third-best ERA in the NL and the best bullpen ERA in baseball.
Still, despite Baker's managerial brilliance, he showed his mortality on Sept. 18 when he checked into a Chicago hospital for pneumonia. He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. Three days later, when Baker was preparing to be released, he suffered the stroke.
Now that Baker is back, Rolen is joined by others wishing to help Baker stay healthy, and I'm among them.
I've known Baker for more than three decades, and he ranks among my all-time favorite sports figures. That's why, as a resident of Atlanta, I'm pulling for something to happen if the Reds come to town to face the Braves during the postseason. I'm pulling for the Busy Bee to become so (ahem) busy that it runs out of food. Either that, or I'm pulling for the owners of this 65-year-old soul food place in downtown Atlanta to flip the sign on its front door from "open" to "closed" -- you know, if they see a familiar customer approaching with a toothpick in his mouth.
Baker loves the Busy Bee.
The restaurant is located just a few fungos away from Turner Field, which is near the site of the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. As a result, Baker was a frequent visitor to the place when he played for the Braves of Aaron, Phil Niekro and Ralph Garr from the late 1960s into the mid-'70s. He continued his Busy Bee trips during his NL playing days with the Dodgers, and later with the San Francisco Giants.
Then came Baker's stint in the league as a manager. He spent 10 seasons through 2002 with the Giants. After that, he was with the Chicago Cubs from '03-06. He's been with the Reds since '08. When Baker didn't go to the Busy Bee during those seasons, the Busy Bee came to him.
I've often watched Baker sit in the visiting manager's office at either Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium or Turner Field partaking in many of the things the Busy Bee has to offer.
Smothered chicken, candied yams, southern fried chicken, peach cobbler, smoked pork hocks, red velvet cake, stewed oxtails, chitlins, collard greens, broccoli cheese casserole, macaroni and cheese -- pretty much all the things he shouldn't be eating these days.
Baker told reporters upon his return this week for the Reds' regular-season closing series in St. Louis that he is traveling these days with his 33-year-old daughter, Natosha.
"She's got turkey burgers, couscous, all kind of stuff," Baker said. "She'll be proud of me to tell you guys I'm eating this. I'm going to sneak down to my local watering spots [in St. Louis] and get some soul food here."
So the Busy Bee in Atlanta? A no-Dusty zone?
This will be tougher than I thought.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.