Dusty Baker, race and the lack of appreciation of a black baseball manager

Dusty Baker, race and the lack of appreciation of a black baseball manager

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Dusty Baker got fired by the Cincinnati Reds this week – according to one report because he took a bullet for a hitting coach the team wanted him to fire, but also because they went to the playoffs three times in the last four seasons but never won a postseason series.

That’s the managerial life. It’s not terribly fair, but it wasn’t fair to the likes of Joe Torre, Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel and Terry Francona– and they’ve won World Series. However, it’s highly unlikely Torre, Johnson, Manuel or Francona, at their lowest points, ever had to deal with “a rash of hate mail, racist mail.’’

Baker did, as he told CBSSports.com.

“This is really ugly. There are all sorts of references to Barack Obama. So now I know where they are coming from. I don’t know, maybe people are mad at him, so they don’t like the idea of blacks in authority.”

Here is his reward, though: fans spewing about his skin color. It happened at the end with the Reds. It happened in the end with the Cubs in 2006.  It happened off and on with the Giants in the 1990s and 2000s.

Baker has managed for 20 years for those three teams. He’s finished in first five times, in second six times, made the playoffs seven times, missed two other playoff berths by one game, and won manager of the year three times. Only 15 men have won more games in baseball history.

But to borrow Malcolm X’s famous line: what do you call a black manager with a record like that? The answer starts with an “N,” and that’s what fans in those cities called Baker, among other slurs and threats to him, his family and other black players on his teams.

He’s certainly earned his pink slips. He’s raised expectations and not quite met them. He’s made blunders (as Giants fans from 2002 remember). Like the rest of Chicago, he was a victim of Bartman, or at least the mess that developed from that. Managers get hired to get fired. Not winning World Series is an acceptable excuse for making a change.

Then again, the Cubs haven’t won a playoff series since they fired Baker in 2006. They just fired the third manager since he left. The last four seasons they’ve lost 87, 91, 101 and 96 games. Yet here is how the Wrigley fans greeted Baker – one of three managers to take their team to a league championship series since World War II – when he first came back with the Reds.

Baker has integrity, strength, leadership and character that people in the sport from the commissioner’s office to the peanut vendors should envy. He always has. In a perfect world, that would insulate him from the hateful among us.

Instead, it threatens them, and their response is to threaten him back.

Dusty Baker is one of a big fraternity of managers who have gotten close, but not all the way. But Grady Little never got called what Baker got called after he left Pedro Martinez in too long in 2003.

Baseball can scratch its head all it wants over why the interest and participation in the national pastime by African Americans keeps shrinking. It can drape every outfield wall with Jackie Robinson’s number and give heartfelt speeches in front of his family. It can form committees and issue reports and fund youth leagues and build academies in the inner cities.

But when it stops pretending that any black person who succeeds in the sport is subject to the most vile racial slander and personal insult the warped minds of its paying customers can dream up – ask everyone from Robinson to Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds to Baker about that – then maybe it will find the answer to its questions.

Meanwhile, Ron Washington has taken Texas to two World Series. But he missed the playoffs this year and lasted just one game the year before.

If his mail gets nasty in the next few weeks, or months, or years, at least he’ll know who to call about it.

Dusty Baker can definitely relate.