ST. LOUIS -- Reds manager Dusty Baker still had his smile, his wrist bands and his toothpicks as he returned to the bench on Monday.
Baker missed 11 games after being admitted to a Chicago hospital Sept. 19 to be treated for an irregular heartbeat. He suffered a minor stroke just before he was to be discharged from the hospital.
"It just feels great to be back with the team here," Baker said in his first pregame media session since returning.
What Baker had more of was appreciation for life and the people in it. What he had less of was himself -- after shedding about 22 pounds of mostly water weight. The 63-year-old described himself as being close to 100 percent again.
"I'm still on some meds, but I feel better," Baker said. "You can tell I've lost weight. I wasn't trying to lose weight."
When Baker left Wrigley Field to get a chest X-ray, a Cubs team doctor was originally worried that he might have pneumonia. After the irregular heartbeat was diagnosed, he was kept for a couple of days for rest and treatment.
Then came the unexpected as he was on the verge of being released from the hospital to return to Cincinnati on Sept. 21.
"I shaved and I was getting ready to put my clothes on," Baker explained. "And the lady asked me to say my name and I couldn't say my name. All of sudden, she called the doctor back in."
The "stroke team" at Northwestern Memorial Hospital diagnosed Baker with a "mini stroke" and began immediate treatment to stem its effects. This story could have gone much worse as Baker could have been on the road to the airport, or on an airplane when the stroke happened.
"It wasn't scary because I didn't feel like it was my time to go," Baker said. "When you go in the hospital, and you're leaving the hospital, it ain't your time to go. I wasn't worried at all. I didn't like the fact I was having a stroke. At the same time, how many people have been in the hospital when they have a stroke? It wasn't my time to go yet."
Baker was released for good from the hospital on Sept. 23 and returned to work on a limited basis. He met with his players behind the scenes, wrote out lineups and participated in meetings about the postseason roster.
The health scare certainly had an effect on his outlook. He was thankful to have his family -- including wife Melissa, daughter Natosha and son Darren. He's heard from countless people around baseball and he's been helped by good friends. That included a close friend from Sacramento, Joe Babich, who accompanied Baker to the hospital and stayed with him after he was admitted and dealt with the doctors' stream of treatment information.
"Now it just makes me feel more appreciative about what I'm doing," Baker said. "I feel more appreciative about my family. I feel truly blessed. To be in the hospital when you have a mini-stroke, you can't get any more blessed than that. The way I look at it is it's our year. We've got a great support staff here. My guys did a great job while I was out."
With bench coach Chris Speier serving as acting manager, the Reds went 7-4 while Baker was out. It was an eventful time as the club clinched and celebrated the National League Central division title while Baker was still hospitalized. And on Friday while he was back in Cincinnati, Homer Bailey threw a no-hitter against the Pirates.
Although his presence was missed, Baker didn't feel like he missed out on big events.
"The way I look at it, the big one is to come," Baker said, referring to a World Series title. "I called Homer and told him what a great job I thought he did in that game. I haven't told [Ryan] Hanigan what a great job he did game-calling. I was sitting there on the edge of my seat. It meant a lot to me and a lot to the guys here."
Reds players were pleased to have their manager back on the bench. A veteran of 19 seasons as a manager, Baker has been the club's skipper since 2008.
"First and foremost, the fact that he is healthy enough to come back and manage is huge," right fielder Jay Bruce said. "Baseball definitely takes a back seat to general health. He's back and he's feeling better. This is what he loves to do. It's what he knows. I'm glad he can be back for the conclusion of the season and getting ready for the postseason."
Baker acknowledged he would have to improve his diet and change his routine. Natosha accompanied him to St. Louis and is encouraging him to eat turkey burgers and couscous.
"She'd be proud of me for telling you guys I'm eating this right now," Baker said. "I'm going to sneak down to my local watering spots to get some soul food."
While players were greatly concerned about him while he was out, there was less concern about their manager having further health issues back on the job.
"He's choosing to come back on his own free will," first baseman Joey Votto said. "I would imagine he has some very bright people and very good doctors helping him make the decision. He's a wise person. I think it would be a tremendous risk to come back if there was a threat to his well-being and certainly his life. The bottom line is how he turns the corner from this real health scare.
"I've been with him for five years for now and I have nothing but respect for the guy. I like playing for him and I'm looking forward to being part of that first World Series he needs so he can get in the Hall of Fame, which he is deserving of."
First, the Reds have to play the Cardinals for three games. When asked about the potential chance of knocking St. Louis out of the second Wild Card spot this week, Baker only smiled devilishly.
Yep, he was back and ready to go.