SAN FRANCISCO -- Long ago, basketball Hall-of-Famer Bill Russell shared with Dusty Baker the secret to winning with consistency: The players have to genuinely love each other.
Baker returns to San Francisco -- the place he played for one season and managed for 10 -- with the sole focus of ending the Giants' 2012 campaign. Not a loving scenario, but a decade after leading the Orange and Black to the World Series, Baker is plenty familiar with what it looks like when a team has clubhouse magic.
"Every team is different," Baker said. "I like this team. I genuinely like this team. It reminds me of the (2002) team I had (in San Francisco), when you genuinely like the players and they genuinely like each other. They can take you a long way by liking each other."
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Also similar to the 2002 Giants team, the 2012 Reds boast an MVP bat in the middle of the lineup. But 2010's most valuable National League player Joey Votto is limping into the playoffs after a 1-for-9 October. His manager isn't showing concern.
"Joey's trying to get his stroke," Baker acknowledged. "But you don't know. Joey might be setting you guys up."
Votto has 81 career at-bats in AT&T Park and just two home runs. His .284 average in San Francisco is a ball and chain on his .316 career average. Unlike Votto, though, Reds' Game 1 starter Johnny Cueto has enjoyed success on the shores of McCovey Cove.
It's a small sample size with just two career starts, but Cueto's 1.38 ERA suggest he enjoys pitching in San Francisco quite well.
"This is a big ballpark," Cueto said through an interpreter. "It's a pitching ballpark. I like to pitch here."
Based on the three-hitter he threw their way in Cincinnati last July, Cueto just likes facing the Giants. But the team he silenced over a year ago was decidedly different than the lineup he'll face on Saturday, specifically for the lack of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence in the heart of the order.
"I don't think anything (of the Giants' current lineup)," Cueto said with a smile. "All I have to do is do my job. I don't see the lineup. I don't know who is going to be in the lineup (Saturday). I have to do my job and they have to do their job."
Just minutes before, his manager explained how he needed to conserve energy so he could do his job. Baker, whose irregular heartbeat landed him in a hospital just in time for the mini-stroke he suffered two weeks ago, expects to be his active and involved self when the games begin.
"Assuredly so," Baker insisted, and you knew he meant it.
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Baker, 63, is admittedly seeing the world with more appreciation after his latest flirtation with the Reaper, and the man who survived prostate cancer in 2000 is happy to be back in the Bay Area.
"This is my home," Baker said. "People know that I'm from here. My wife's from here. I still live here, part time. I don't know, I just like the people here. I like the attitude, it's my crowd of people."
Don't think Baker is entertaining thoughts of retiring back to his Sacramento home, though. While his contract is up when the Reds' season ends, he plans on managing an MLB team for a 20th time next year. After postseason butterflies woke him -- against his preference -- at 6 a.m. Friday morning, Baker doesn't feel like his skills, or passion, are slipping. Just the opposite, in fact.
"I feel like I'm getting better," Baker stated confidently.
It's a scary thought for the man who is 20th all-time in wins and second only to Jim Leyland among active managers. Bruce Bochy is third on that list, trailing Baker by 131 victories.
The 2012 NLDS will pit two of baseball's elite managers against each other, managers who have fostered healthy clubhouse environments and winning attitudes in their respective cities.
The games in the best-of-five series will ultimately rule which clubhouse cultured more love, but it will be clear before the first pitch how much appreciation Baker receives from his home town crowd.
"We'll see if they still love me on Sunday," Baker said with a smile. "If we're 2-0, we'll see."