Baker finally putting health scares behind him
A year removed from heart and stroke issues, Reds manager back in form
PHOENIX -- When the season began, Reds manager Dusty Baker put himself on health probation.
A prostate cancer survivor, Baker, now 64, was hospitalized last year with symptoms of heart failure. Before he could be released, he suffered what he calls "a mini-stroke," and was instantly re-admitted to Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
"If that was a mini-stroke, I don't want to experience what a big one feels like," he told MLB.com on Sunday in his office at Chase Field before the Reds closed a three-game series against the D-backs.
Johnny B. Jr. was in rare form. His radiant smile had returned. He's no longer slurring some of his words. He has cheated death twice and is ready to declare that he's almost off probation.
"I feel great, actually," Baker said. "I'm just trying not to let things bother me that I can't control. I'm still trying to be myself, but this first year after you have a stroke you're kind of on trial."
Although he finished the 2012 season in the dugout, Baker arrived at Spring Training in nearby Goodyear, Ariz., having just been cleared to go back to work. He was mentally tired, fighting physical fatigue and certainly wary of a repeat incident.
"Spring Training was a big test for me," Baker said. "I went to every urologist, neurologist, cardiologist there was in Sacramento, Calif., and UC Davis Medical Center and Mercy Hospital. I had all kinds of tests."
When Baker went to Northwestern Memorial that day in late September, his feet were swollen and his heart was working well under capacity. He knew he had an irregular heartbeat, a common condition called Atrial Fibrillation, but he had yet to learn that he also suffered from sleep apnea, which can restrict your breathing while trying to sleep.
A-Fib, as it is called, enhances the infinitesimal possibility of suffering a stroke by five percent because blood clots can collect in a chamber of the heart as it beats irregularly every few seconds. If the heart pushes one of those clots into the blood stream, the patient can have a stroke. That's what happened to Baker.
Most of this is congenital. His father, Johnny B. Sr., had prostate cancer and heart disease and passed away three years ago at 84, after a long period of poor health.
"My sleep apnea led to my cardiac failure, which led to my mini-stroke, because I threw off a blood clot," Baker said. "I went in because of the cardiac failure. They said my heart was beating only at about 35-percent capacity. My feet swelled on me. I could hear myself wheezing at night and I thought that that was my allergies. I heard that cracking sound in my chest that I heard in my dad's chest before he passed. I couldn't put my shoes on that morning. So they took me to the hospital right away."
It went from bad to worse.
Baker was treated and about to be released when nurses asked him to pronounce his name. Reds owner Bob Castellini had sent his personal plane, because the team had already returned to Cincinnati. A car was waiting downstairs to take him to the airport.
"I said, "D-bada," he recalled.
He was asked again.
"I said, "D-badada. "They said, "'Oh, no. We're putting you back in the hospital.' That was one of the worst things I've ever heard. But if I had gone in the car, who knows what would've happened? I was having a stroke that minute."
Baker was prepared for it all. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer during the winter before the 2002 season, his last in San Francisco as manager of the Giants, when they lost in seven games to the Angels in the World Series.
At 53, that diagnosis shocked him, as he was confronted for the first time with his own mortality.
He had a radical prostatectomy and went to Kauai, his favorite Hawaiian island, to recover, both spiritually and physically. This past offseason, he returned to the same place, the same wellness center, and has since purchased some land there for a retreat.
He has another year left on his contract, is nowhere finished managing baseball, and he believes life is not finished with him.
"I know I ain't going nowhere," Baker said. "I had a stroke in the hospital. How many people have a stroke in the hospital? I've got too much to do on this earth and too much to give to people."
To that end, he's using a CPAP breathing unit to help him sleep, is traveling with a defibrillator and a heart monitor in case he has any sudden cardiac incidents, and is taking the blood thinner, Xarelto, to ward off any more blood clots.
"I take a little longer to pack, that's all," Baker said.
His life is boring, he added. He goes to bed early, has curtailed drinking alcohol, is watching his diet and exercising regularly. He looks fit.
"I'm not supposed to cut myself," he said. "I can't ride my motorcycle anymore, because if I hit my head I might hemorrhage inside. I can't get in any fights on the field. I've had a good life. I took care of myself, but I have everything my dad had. So now I really have to watch it. You don't know when it's going to happen."
Baker paused and continued to be upbeat. "I know I'm going to be fine, better than fine," he concluded. "This has made me better."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.