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Dusty Baker went from Chicago blues to Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker remains hospitalized Thursday. | David Kohl~AP

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker remains hospitalized on Thursday. | David Kohl~AP

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Updated: September 10, 2012 1:48PM

MILWAUKEE — Six years being enough time for most baseball wounds to heal, Dusty Baker might get a break from his Chicago critics when he arrives at Wrigley Field with the Reds for a four-game series against the Cubs beginning Thursday.

Oh, there will be boos — Baker heard some well before his mercurial four-year run as Cubs manager ended in 2006 — but this round will be driven by envy.

While the depleted Cubs are in fifth place and sinking into oblivion in the National League Central, Baker’s Reds lead the division and bring one of baseball’s best records (66-45) to town.

“We’re a good team, not a great team,” Baker said, despite recent evidence to the contrary.

The Reds had reeled off 22 wins in 25 games before they ran into some tough Brewers pitching and got swept in a three-game series.

They’ve begun feeling the absence of All-Star first baseman Joey Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, who was hitting .349 with 14 home runs, 49 RBI and an OPS of 1.069 when he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on July 16. Votto should be back later this month.

“We’ve had a lot of guys step up since Joey got hurt,” Baker said. “And we play hard every night.”

Baker insists he’s not into vindication.

“Not until we win a couple of World Series,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not popping my buttons because we’re in first place.”

But managing the Reds has given him an opportunity to reclaim his reputation. A playoff berth would be his second in three years and his sixth overall; among active managers, only Jim Leyland, with six already, has more.

One of those postseason runs came with the Cubs — he directed them to a 19-game improvement, a totally unforeseen division title and a first-round playoff victory over the Braves in 2003, his first year here. A baseball genius had arrived in Wrigleyville — “In Dusty We Trusty” T-shirts became a fashion statement.

But that giddy success was akin to Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game five years earlier — impossible to duplicate or sustain amid amped-up expectations.

Cubdom’s love affair with Baker hit the rocks in Game 6 of the ’03 NL Championship Series and then unraveled like a Kardashian marriage.

Pick any of the flaws and misfortune that bedeviled the Cubs from 2004 to ’06: Mark Prior’s many ailments, a tiff with Steve Stone, Corey Patterson’s perplexing obsession with high fastballs. Baker was blamed for all of it.

‘‘Corey Patterson is a mystery to this day,” he said. “Before he got hurt in ’03, he was our best player. When he came back, he couldn’t hit high fastballs or breaking balls in the dirt, and he couldn’t lay off them. He never developed a plan at the plate.”

Criticism comes with the job —Baker knows that. But the Chicago style was cynical and personal, much of it delivered by baseball sages who never went to the ballpark or spent any time around him or his team.

Baker wasn’t surprised when Jim Hendry fired him in 2006, but he was stung. A three-time Manager of the Year, he was more accustomed to baseball success than failure.

“I was as low as I’ve ever been when I left Chicago,” Baker said.

He enjoyed some downtime with his family in Northern California and kept conversant with the game through studio work with ESPN.

But he didn’t need much persuading when the Reds called to gauge his interest in becoming their manager.

“I didn’t want it to end like it did in Chicago,” he said.

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