SAN FRANCISCO — Minus his old signature toothpick, Cincinnati's Dusty Baker leaned against the batting cage intently watching his players just as he did for a decade managing the Giants.
Baker is back in the Bay Area for the playoffs, 10 years after he came so close to winning a World Series with San Francisco.
"Well, I really don't have much choice," Baker said when asked if it's a strange coincidence. "I feel comfortable here. I think my team likes coming here. This is a good town."
Sometimes Baker still feels the sting of that World Series near-miss, even now, two managerial stops removed from his first career gig as a skipper in the place he has long called home.
On Saturday, he figures to be cheered by 40,000-plus fans at AT&T Park who still love him — "some of 'em," he quipped — when the NL Central champion Reds open their best-of-five division series against the Giants, who like Cincinnati clinched early and had plenty of time to get everything situated and lined up for the postseason.
"I'll be honest, I like this clinching early thing," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose 2010 World Series championship team clinched in Game 162.
These days, the 63-year-old Baker is conserving energy after a recent 11-game absence forced by a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat. He just rejoined the Reds on Monday in St. Louis. Baker was away for the NL Central clincher, and Homer Bailey's no-hitter at Pittsburgh last Friday night.
He's ready to go now — with no plans to change a thing about the way he operates during a game on the playoff stage.
"I'm feeling like a grateful man," Baker said from his spot at the cage on a sunny fall afternoon in the Giants' waterfront ballpark.
Cincinnati's 19-game winner Johnny Cueto takes the ball in Game 1 on Saturday night.
Matt Cain (16-5) pitches the opener for the Giants with plenty of postseason cred to fall back on: The three-time All-Star didn't surrender an earned run during his team's improbable title run two years ago. He went 2-0 in three starts and 21 1-3 innings, struck out 13 and walked seven.
Cain won his final six regular-season decisions and struck out 193 batters in 219 1-3 innings this season. The right-hander hasn't lost in 10 starts since Aug. 6 at St. Louis.
He earned himself a new $127.5 million, six-year contract before the season as he'd so hoped, then backed that up by tossing the first perfect game in franchise history June 13 against the Houston Astros.
"This group has been together since the beginning and we all had the thought that this is where we wanted to be in spring training," Cain said.
The Barry Bonds-led Giants fell six outs short of a World Series title in Game 6 against the wild-card Angels, then lost Game 7. And Baker was gone shortly thereafter, off to the Windy City for the daunting challenge of managing the Chicago Cubs.