It’s a dilemma every “Players Manager” has faced or will eventually do so. When your reputation in the dugout is that you cater to the needs of your ball players, at some point they’re going to start taking advantage of that relationship. They get comfortable, and accountability is in short supply. The Reds reached heights under Dusty Baker that they had barely sniffed in 15 years, but the player manager circle of life completed its cycle, and now he’s out the door.
Reds fans knew what they were getting when Baker accepted the job in Cincinnati before the 2008 season. He’s a proven winner. He’s been a player or manager in the big leagues for 39 years and has a .500 or better record in 23 of those. He also has fallen short of the top prize all but once (a World Series title as a player in 1981).
The success in the regular season not equaling postseason glory is all part of the reputation in Dusty’s world. To be a good manager, you need to make the team better. To be a great manager, you need to bring home the title. Baker has consistently proven good, not great. Now, loyalists to Cincinnati’s team hope the Baker Era is just the transition period from also ran to major power and not a shooting star followed by a fall back into the darkness of the league’s cellar.
So why did this happen now, when the Reds had the most talent of Baker’s six seasons? A key is the sudden lack of player leadership in the clubhouse. A team leader is the players manager’s best friend. He’s the one that demands accountability while the manager is able to play the role of peacemaker. Scott Rolen was that guy for past versions of this club. Rolen wasn’t just a veteran. He gained credibility with a World Series title and eight Gold Gloves to his name. He also was the no nonsense type that would speak up when quieter stars like Joey Votto and Jay Bruce wouldn’t, and, maybe more importantly, could offset the louder personalities like Brandon Phillips.
It can’t be argued that the clubhouse seemed to be in a constant state of semi-disarray this season, and Phillips always seemed to find himself in the middle of it. The Twitter king gave an interview where he called his $72.5 million contract a slap in the face, he vehemently defended those comments, and then came the blow up. And it wasn’t just Phillips. Ryan Ludwick called out the fans (who set a Great American BallPark season attendance record, by the way), and even the team’s followers sensed a general malaise around the club all season.
The Reds were supposed to compete for the World Series title. Instead, they played a single playoff game before heading to the golf course for a 23rd straight title-less season. The apparent locker room issues easily could have been overlooked if this team played to its talent level and made a run at the Commissioner’s Trophy. That didn’t happen, though. Instead it was a third straight gut wrenching playoff exit marred by uncharacteristic mistakes.
Because of that, someone had to go, and Walt Jocketty’s not going to fire himself or the players. Deserved or not, Dusty’s the guy, and we probably should’ve seen it coming from the beginning. He played out his usual narrative, taking the team up the mountain but stopping short of the peak.
What will define this Reds squad and Jocketty’s tenure in Cincinnati is what they do now. Will they plant the flag at the top or head back to base camp and force the fans to start over once again?