"Usually my teams finish stronger than most teams."
That's what Dusty Baker said in early September, when the Reds were in the midst of taking three of four from the first-place Cardinals. They'd go on to sweep the Dodgers in their next series. Things were looking up for the defending NL Central champs.
And then? Well, then the Reds reverted back to what they were the bulk of the season -- underachievers. They lost two of three to the Cubs, two of three to the Brewers. They swept the Astros (as many teams did), and they took two of three in Pittsburgh. But with second place in sight and home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game on the line, they had a disastrous final week -- losing two of three at home to the Mets and getting swept by the Bucs.
When they lost the Wild Card Game on Tuesday in Pittsburgh, with their left-leaning lineup felled by Francisco Liriano, it felt like a foregone conclusion. You know how every year you hear about those surprisingly successful teams that are "greater than the sum of their parts"? The Reds were less.
"Winning in the regular season is fine, good teams do that," right fielder Jay Bruce said in the wake of the Wild Card loss. "But the great teams win in the postseason and win championships. We need to find out what's missing."
The Reds took what they hope is the first step toward finding out by dismissing Dusty on Friday, and it was a decidedly divisive move.
On the one hand, Baker is the man who oversaw this organization's return to relevance, with three postseason berths in the last four years. He raised the stakes in Cincinnati.
On the other hand, Baker was burdened by those stakes. The Reds took that essential step into October, but the step that's supposed to follow has eluded them. They were bounced by the Phillies in three games in the 2010 Division Series, blew a 2-0 lead against the Giants last year and were one-and-done here in 2013.
That expectations rose in Cincinnati is a credit to Baker. That the Reds didn't meet those expectations is a knock on Baker. So which of those two realities ought to have carried the most weight?
Well, Baker's entire two-decade managerial tenure has been beset by his inability to win the big one. Best manager to never win a World Series? With an 840-715 lifetime record and only one NL pennant (2002 with San Francisco) to show for it, he is in the conversation.
As a tactician, Baker can aggravate the heck out of those with more modern statistical minds. He's in love with the sacrifice bunt. His lineup construction bends toward the traditional. He abhors some of the advanced analytics that can be beneficial in the realm of matchups and in-game modifications.
Sometimes, he can drive you absolutely nuts.
But when all is said and done, Baker didn't lose his job with the Reds because of his tactical tendencies. He lost it because his greatest strength -- motivating people to get the best out of their abilities -- eluded him when it mattered most.
That line about his teams "usually" finishing stronger than most teams? It rang hollow when the Reds sleep-walked their way through late September. By and large, Dusty's players love him like a father. But they let their dad down when the pressure was at its height.
Now, maybe this wasn't exactly an "all-in" season for the Reds, because they do have plenty of pieces locked up well beyond this year. But Shin-Soo Choo could be gone next spring. Same with Bronson Arroyo. And while the Reds know they'll still be good in 2014, what they don't know is what it will take to keep pace in a division in which the Cardinals are always a handful and the Pirates have returned to relevance. Every opportunity to reach the World Series is a special one, and that's why it was so frustrating to watch the Reds cough this one up so convincingly.
Still, another question must be asked: How much of that disappointment is due to Baker and how much of it falls at the feet of the front office?
After all, the Reds spent the vast majority of the season in glaring need of right-handed power. Ryan Ludwick got hurt on Opening Day, and, while he was able to return in August, four months removed from shoulder surgery, his inability to follow his usual lifting program sapped his strength.
Baker might have ruffled the feathers of general manager Walt Jocketty every time he brought up the name Marlon Byrd down the stretch (and he brought it up often), but he had a point. Byrd would have been a nice piece. And even if the Reds didn't want to give up anything to get that piece, their third-place standing ensured that they could have at least put in a claim on his negligible remaining salary to prevent the Pirates, who were searching far and wide for a right-field bat, from getting him. Byrd came back to haunt the Reds in the season's final weekend and in the Wild Card Game.
So this isn't all on Dusty. Not by a long shot. But the Reds' move was shocking only in the sense that they are a small market club that is going to be paying a guy between $3.5 million and $4 million next year to not manage for them, and that's a significant price.
It's also a price that will likely come into play in their search for a replacement. If the Reds opt to take a chance on a guy looking for his first managerial opportunity, they could do plenty worse than to hire from within and give pitching coach Bryan Price a shot, providing both continuity and a more advanced analytical approach.
Whatever the approach from here on out, the expectation remains the same. Bob Castellini spent big on this club, and he rightfully expects results. Once again, the end result was unsatisfying in 2013. There was surprisingly little sense of urgency on the part of the manager and the front office the last few months.
That's why the Reds are home, and that's why Dusty Baker is gone.