Since he was fired by the Cincinnati Reds in 2013, a clear image of Dusty Baker has emerged. He was a lifelong baseball man desperate to stay that way. Toiling in his California garden was not an accepted replacement for the rush of important in-game decisions a baseball manager must make. Like the last time he was between jobs, Baker wanted to be anything but.
Tuesday morning, he was a manager again. Baker, 66, was named the sixth full-time manager for the Washington Nationals since their arrival in 2005. Among National League East teams, only the annually moribund Miami Marlins have burned through as many field leaders during the same time period.
“We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” said Ted Lerner, principal owner of the Nationals, in a statement announcing Baker’s hiring. “During our broad search process we met with many qualified candidates, and ultimately it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”
After firing green and rigid Matt Williams, who once played under Baker and credited him with providing lessons in how to manage, the Nationals said they wanted an experienced manager. They now have that with Baker, who began managing at the major league level in 1993 with the San Francisco Giants. Baker worked for San Francisco until 2002, when he was fired. The Chicago Cubs immediately hired him, then fired him in 2006. He spent a year away from the field before the Reds hired him for the 2008 season.
Baker’s hiring was a strange and significant process. Last Friday, Baker spoke to reporters in San Francisco and lamented not being selected for the Nationals’ job. The choice then was former San Diego Padres manager Bud Black. He and the Nationals could not reach a deal, so the pivot to hire Baker occurred. The change gives Washington the lone black manager in the major leagues. In 2002, there were eight black managers at baseball’s highest level.
“If that’s not backwards, I don’t know how much more backwards we can go,” Baker told The San Francisco Chronicle over the weekend.
When he is introduced at a Thursday morning press conference, Baker will be asked about his past managing success and failures. There is a long list of each. In his 20 seasons as a major league manager, Baker is 1,671-1,504, producing a .526 winning percentage. He was named NL Manager of the year in 1993, 1997 and 2000. Three times, he finished second in voting. Seven times, he guided a team to the playoffs. In 2002, the Giants lost the World Series to the Anaheim Angels in seven games. He is 11-13 in the postseason. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Baker is one of six managers to win a division title with at least three teams.
Those numbers represent the strength of Baker’s managerial resume. Along with the wins and accolades, are collapses and questions.
In 1993, the Giants held a 9 1/2-game division lead on Aug. 7. That lead dwindled. On the final day of the season, San Francisco lost, 12-1. A win would have forced a tiebreaking game against the Atlanta Braves for the division title. The Giants won 103 games, the second-most in the majors, but missed the playoffs.
San Francisco led the World Series, 3-2, in 2002 before losing in seven games. It was leading, 5-0, in the seventh inning of Game 6, but went on to lose, 6-5. Starter Russ Ortiz took the mound in the seventh inning and allowed two hits. The reliever Baker chose to replace him, Felix Rodriguez, allowed a three-run home run. The Giants never recovered, losing Game 7, 4-1.
The following season, when Baker was managing the Cubs, Chicago led the NL Championship Series, 3-1. The Florida Marlins rallied to force Game 6. The Cubs led, 3-0, going into the eighth inning. Florida scored eight runs in the inning, then went on to win Game 7, 9-6. In 2012, the Reds led the NL Division Series, 2-0, against the Giants after winning the first two games on the road. They lost all three games at home to drop the series.
Baker’s usage of pitchers is among the main criticisms of his managerial style. He is often blamed for overworking them, particularly those who are younger. He also prefers an “old-school” game management style that often irks baseball’s advanced analytics community.
“He watches very intently every game,” said Reds reliever Sam LeCure, who played four seasons for Baker. “He knows these guys, all these players very well. I believe that he has instincts about how to use them. Because he’s been around the game for so long, more often than not those instincts are right, and he did a great job as far as managing the game, from where I sat.”
Baker has been around Major League Baseball for almost 50 years. As a 19-year-old, Baker made five plate appearances for the Braves in 1968. He was a right-handed outfielder who catapulted from being a 26th-round pick in 1967 to digging into the batter’s box in Atlanta in September of the following year. A pinch-hit single in his third at-bat put him on base for the first time. By 1972, he was a full-time big leaguer. In 1974, he watched from the on-deck circle as Hank Aaron’s 715th home run flew out of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
From 1980 through 1983, he surged. Playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Baker finished fourth in National League MVP voting in 1980. He was named an all-star in each of the next two seasons. Baker retired following the 1986 season. His 19 years in the majors produced a .278 average, 272 home runs, a Gold Glove and an NLCS MVP nod.
Spending such a long time in the public spotlight has developed Baker into a diverse personality. ESPN and TBS have hired him to analyze games on TV. He started a wine company and is promoting a solar energy one. His attachment to moments in baseball lore, like the Aaron home run, being credited as one half of the first high-five, and the unforgettable snagging of his son Darren by J.T. Snow at home plate in the 2002 World Series are notable. He is not lacking for experience or personality.
“He’s a cool dude, man,” LeCure said. “He’s old-school, but he’s OK with you having that swagger if, when it comes time to play ball, you’re going to go out there and play hard-nosed ball. He’s a nice mix.”
After three years off the fields, his longest departure since the start of his career, Baker takes over a team in flux. Several key players became free agents following a tumbling season, where the Nationals went from World Series favorites to distant second-place finishers. Despite all that, pressure remains. Las Vegas gives the Nationals 12-1 odds to win the World Series next season, tying them with four other teams. Only the Cubs were granted better odds by the bookmakers.
So, Baker will pop his signature toothpick back into his mouth and lean against the dugout railing on April 4, 2016 as the new Nationals manager. He’ll be back in Atlanta that day, a 66-year-old with his fourth shot at managing, returning, finally, to the comfort of a uniform, one that belonged to someone else just a few days ago.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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