Cubs tenure ended 11 years ago, but it's still 'personal' for Dusty Baker

Dusty Baker is a big believer in karma, in case you haven't heard, and the Nationals manager is counting on some good karma — and solid pitching — to lead him to his first championship as manager.

But first the Nationals have to make it past the Cubs in the National League Division Series, where Baker's former team is poised to squelch his dreams.

Leaning back in his chair in his office at Nationals Park, Baker said he's not worried about a thing.

"It's already written," he said. "All you gotta do is believe. If I win (the World Series), I'm going to be extremely happy, but then I'll be thinking about winning No. 2.

"If you see my crying on TV, then kick my butt. Because I'm thinking (two rings) is how it's supposed to be in the first place."

Sometimes life will beat you down. The 68-year-old Baker has been beaten down a time or two in his four stops as manager, especially in October.

Last year the Nats, without injured starter Stephen Strasburg and catcher Wilson Ramos, lost a tight, five-game NLDS to the Dodgers. Injuries have marred this season, but the Nats managed to cruise to the NL East title, which allowed star outfielder Bryce Harper to return from his knee injury without rushing things.

"This year we're at full forces, but without (outfielder Brian Goodwin) and Harper just back a week, and (Jayson) Werth back 10 days or whatever, it's probably synonymous to (Kyle) Schwarber coming back later (in the 2016 World Series)," he said.

"It should be a heck of a series. It's already kind of written. The whole path."

The whole path? The path to playing the Cubs?

"You don't think that's circumstance necessarily?" he said.

Well ...

The Cubs and Nats were on path to meet in last year's National League Championship Series before the Dodgers intervened. They've been on this current path since the Cubs overtook the Brewers in the Central Division shortly after the All-Star break, giving everyone ample time to ponder the matchup.

Is this personal for Baker?

Are you kidding?

"Almost everything is personal to me," he said. "I make it personal. It keeps me motivated sometimes, whether we're playing the Cubs or not playing the Cubs. If you've been around as long as I have, there's something about everybody that maybe they don't like (you), or something about everybody that I may not like.

"In 50 years in this game, I've come across paths with general managers, players, people, fans, relatives that were either for or against you, or changed sides along the way."

It would be impossible to separate Baker's experience in Chicago from his personality.

He was defiant before he got there, and more defiant upon leaving. He still can recall every slight, including one from Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney, who told fans at the 2009 Cubs Convention replacing Baker with Lou Piniella was the best thing to happen to the team.

"If you think about the team that won in '07, does that team win with our former manager?" Kenney asked the crowd. "Not a chance."

After leaving the Giants following their 2002 NL pennant to take the Cubs job, Baker was beloved in Chicago in '03, but lost in an NLCS that included a certain Game 6. Google it.

The Cubs let Baker go after 2006, a long and excruciating season in which everyone knew he was fired by July, he took the Reds to the postseason three times without winning, but was let go after 2013 when he refused to fire his hitting coach.

That's three controversial endings, and since his two-year contract is up, this could be No. 4 if he doesn't win. Still, the only place he continues to get booed is in Chicago, more than a decade after his last game managing there.

"Everything lingers there," he said. "I'm all right. That's the nature of the place, and I've always liked Chicago."

Harsh feelings about his Cubs ending may motivate Baker to beat them, but general manager Mike Rizzo said it's not going to affect his managing once the game starts.

Baker and Rizzo have bigger fish to fry.

"I don't think him managing against the Cubs has any significance," Rizzo said. "He wants to win a World Series. That's the significance with me, being a Chicago kid, and with Dusty being the manager over the years there.

"The significance is to win the World Series, not to beat the Cubs."

Beating the Cubs is Step 1, and Baker knows the storyline of this NLDS will include two big subplots: The Nats never winning the big one, and Dusty never winning the big one.

"I don't listen to any of them, and I don't read 'em," he said. "I've told people that, and they're like 'Oh, no man, (forget it).' After I got booed unmercifully in my first year in L.A. (as a player), and the next year I hit 30 home runs and they loved the heck out of me, I'm kind of unfazed by the ups and downs.

"And why should I let anybody else control my happiness and my (self) esteem? I don't pay any attention to that because I've got to remain constant in myself and in my happiness. If you read or listen to all that stuff, you'll be high or low depending on the reactions of everybody else."

Baker again thanked the Cubs and former GM Jim Hendry for helping him resolve a longstanding fight with the IRS over a tax issue. The weight was lifted, and he stopped looking backward.

"When I left San Francisco, I was fighting the IRS, and I was always, it seemed like, fighting somebody," he said. "When I go there and they boo me, I thank 'em for the life they helped me get. No problem."

It seems like Baker's fight isn't over yet.

Maybe it will never end.

psullivan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

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