Can Dusty help Cubs find their mojo?
Chicago baseball fans are counting on managing guru Dusty Baker to end their team's 95-year drought.
CHICAGO — Dusty Baker has some of the best all-around credentials in baseball: He played in the major leagues for 16 seasons, and has coached for 10 more. He hit 242 home runs and won three manager-of-the-year awards with the San Francisco Giants.
But listen to Chicago Cub fans talk about their new manager on sports radio, while queuing up outside Wrigley Field, or eating in a West Side restaurant, and one might think Baker were a sort of shaman or Viennese psychiatrist - or at the very least a yoga instructor, hired to cleanse the club of what many here call a near-century-long curse.
"It's this mojo thing he's got," says Cubs season ticket-holder Ryan Soukup, standing outside Wrigley's center-field ticket gate.
Many here believe Baker is the perfect person, perhaps the only person, capable of turning around the Cubs' 95-year drought of World Series titles. This losing streak hangs over this franchise, ballpark, and city like an industrial-strength albatross.
Yet since Baker came to town this season, the Cubs are in first place, and Chicago is euphoric. His relaxed, charismatic leadership style is making believers - even of Chicago sports media.
"Once during a press conference he stopped talking, turned up the volume on his CD player, and started playing 'air harmonica,' " says Bruce Miles, who reports on the Cubs for the Chicago Daily Herald. "He's the most exciting, interesting guy I've ever covered."
Fans here liken Baker to a self-help guru, a sort of super-hip Doctor Phil whose skill and savvy seem to have been fashioned, they say, for the sole purpose of breathing new life into their team.
This sort of regard shows the effect that one man, and one team, can have on citizens who hold their sports teams only slightly less dear than their children and faith. "People have adopted him and his wife and kid as saviors," says Terry Armour, entertainment writer for the Chicago Tribune. "Dusty has such a good personality, the fans and the city are feeding off that."
Rarely has so much been known about a manager in this town, say observers, in so little time. Fans around the ballpark talk about Baker as though he were a close cousin.
"He's a fisherman, which means he's a great guy in my book," says Lou Boudreaux, head chef at the Sports Corner Tavern & Grill, situated a few blocks from Wrigley.
"He's respects people. He's not a screamer," says Chicagoan Al Yellon, grabbing a beverage and beef frank at a nearby restaurant. "He's an unreconstructed hippie."
Baker's temperament is decidedly West Coast. He wears black-rimmed glasses and wristbands. In the dugout, he usually chews on a toothpick, projecting the look of a jock-beatnik.
A few weeks ago, says Chicagoan Tim Shockley, Baker reportedly walked into the clubhouse and started blasting jazz and blues music over the hi-fi system. "Last year, that never would have happened," says Mr. Shockley. When asked if he has been a Cubs fan all his life, he replies, "Unfortunately."
It is this hard-luck mentality - forged over nearly a century of tragic debacle and predictable failure - that Baker must overcome, say longtime Cubs observers.
The Cubs been to the playoffs only three times in the past 18 years, a disappointing record that has sent 14 managers packing over the past 20 years.
The team has a history of grooming players for several years, only to see them become superstars after they are traded to a different team.
Even when their team is winning, Cubs fans temper championship expectations with memories of heartbreaking late-season collapses. They justify this fatalism by recalling 1969, a season symbolized by the now-infamous game in which a black cat ran across the field.
As the Cubs continue to hold their grip on first place, and are spurred by a few encouraging moments along the way (they beat the New York Yankees earlier this month for the first time in 65 years), weary-hearted references to the '69 Cubs are being heard around the ballpark more often then orders for bratwurst and Italian beef.
"It's a lot different when you come to the Cubs," says Sanjay Choudrey, a waiter at Murphy's Bleachers, a restaurant across the street from Wrigley Field. "The team is cursed."
Baker has not avoided addressing the curse. He attempted to disperse the cloud of failure even before he became manager. "If you stop talking about it, I think it goes away, and we start winning," Baker told Chicago Sun Times columnist Jay Mariotti in February.
But Baker does not approach his burden with nonchalance. He recognizes that winning a World Series with the Cubs would, for many Chicagoans, be tantamount to securing world peace.
"In his first news conference, Dusty himself said that if you can win with the Cubs, you are a saint and a hero," says Mark Giangreco, sports director at WLS-TV, Chicago's ABC affiliate.
In the meantime, Cub fans have not withheld VIP treatment. "Dusty's wife says she loves it here," says Mr. Armour. "She hasn't had to cook yet because everywhere she goes she gets a free meal."
Baker's 4-year-old son, Darren, has been hired as a spokeschild for a high-end kids' boutique, says Armour. Before every home game, 10 fans or more wait outside the Cub's parking lot to get Baker's autograph, a ritual not seen in Chicago since the quotable Mike Ditka coached the Chicago Bears to the 1985 Super Bowl. "They adore him so much," says Razak Olasupo, an attendant at the VIP parking lot who recently moved to Chicago from Nigeria. "We are both in our first season with the Cubs, and his job so far is very commendable."
In Mr. Giangreco's mind, all doubts about Baker were settled when Hans Auschbacher, head chef at Smith & Wollensky's restaurant and Chicago mover and shaker, offered his first impression of the manager: "Chef Hans walked up to me and said, 'You're going to love this guy. He's one of us.' "