The sting of playoff defeat never goes away. It lives with you, eats at your soul, Dusty Baker was saying this week.
The manager of the Cincinnati Reds won't soon forget how his club stormed to a 2-0 series lead over the Giants in the National League Division Series last fall only to be swept in three games at home the only time that happened in 2012 and unceremoniously ushered into winter.
But Baker, 63, stands as a new man. He is fueled by a sobering bit of perspective and a clean bill of health. Baker suffered a minor stroke Sept. 21 while already in the hospital to check why his feet were so tender and swollen. He was about to be discharged when a nurse asked him to say his name.
All sorts of garbled sounds came out.
Tonight, Baker promises to be at his chatty and charming best, surrounded by family, friends and fans as he is inducted into the Sacramento Sports Hall of Fame at Thunder Valley Casino. His fellow inductees are Bill Cartwright, Kevin Johnson, Tony Lopez and Summer Sanders.
"I'm feeling great, really good," Baker said this week, his weight down and spirits up. "It was a long winter. Got poked and prodded quite a bit by doctors, but I had the best care. Having a stroke in the hospital I could've been in traffic or in the plane. I knew it wasn't my time."
Did Baker's family want him out of baseball, to keep him healthy?
"You know moms, they always worry, but no, they wanted me to keep managing," Baker said. "It wasn't the game that was causing me health problems. It was some things I was born with and inherited from my folks, and you live with it. My boy, my son (13-year-old Darren) wants me to stay in it to win a championship or two."
A World Series championship is the one void in Baker's otherwise glossy résumé. A four-sport star at Del Campo High School, Baker's playing career spanned 19 major league seasons, and he is a three-time Manager of the Year.
Those stinging setbacks? He managed the 2002 Giants to a 3-2 World Series lead before losing to the Angels. In 2003, his Cubs were on the cusp of reaching the World Series before the world was introduced to Steve Bartman. Baker is the second-winningest manager behind Gene Mauch without a World Series championship.
Even after the stroke and playoff disappointment, the Reds signed Baker to a two-year extension.
"Very happy about that," Baker said. "I went thick and thin with those guys. We're good for each other. I know I'm good for them and they're definitely good for me. It's a wonderful life. It really has been a great career. It wasn't always up in my career. There were times I was extremely down. The main thing is coming back. You have to come back, bounce back, and come back again. My son says, 'Dad, a lot of people are depending on you.' "
Baker frequently mentions his son, saying that "he's living a kid's dream, to go to so many major league parks."
Baker also reflected on his late father, John B. Baker Sr. The elder Baker was a towering, imposing figure, with a limp. He was the epitome of hard work, a civilian who worked in the military and often two jobs cutting lawns, tacking roofs. He sold TVs at an area Sears store in "retirement."
When young Baker and his friends played in the Del Campo neighborhood on Marble Street, they'd scatter at the sound of Mr. Baker's boat-like car coming home. Sometimes they weren't fast enough. A handful of kids meant a handful of chores to Mr. Baker.
"He was intimidating to a kid, but he was a fair man, a stern man who believed in discipline," Baker recalled. "The kids who stuck around, he'd put them to work, but he'd feed you. I think of my dad a lot. My dad comes to me sometimes in the middle of a game, or in the morning. Dad and I were close. I miss my adviser. I could go to Dad for the truth, whether I wanted to hear it or not."
Baker now listens to young Darren, who at 13 offers mature advice: Stay in the game. Do what you want to do, what you are.
"I'm staying in baseball," Baker said. "What am I going to do with my time? You can only fish so much.
"I don't play golf. I love the life I have. Why give it up when you're healthy to do it and you enjoy it? I've been preparing to leave the game for 10 years now, but now it's not the time."