- The Washington Times
Thursday, November 5, 2015

When Dusty Baker was a child, his father, Johnnie, worked two jobs, holding down a role as a civilian worker in the military and then, by night, serving as a retail salesman. Baker recalled his father never taking a sick day; he would take a 20-minute nap to recharge between shifts, failing to miss even one.

It is through that lens that Baker has come to view the importance and value of work, and it’s why, in the two years since he last managed a Major League Baseball team, Baker has found ways keep busy. He has occupied his time by running a vineyard, investing in solar energy projects and writing a book, which was released earlier this month.

Nothing, though, compares to being around baseball, which is what has nagged at Baker since he was fired by the Cincinnati Reds after the 2013 season. That layoff ended on Tuesday, when Baker was hired to be the Washington Nationals’ next manager, thereby allowing him to return to work.

“You hate to have voids in your life,” Baker said Thursday, when he donned a Nationals hat and jersey at Nationals Park for the first time. “You can live without them, but I’d rather not.”

By hiring Baker, the Nationals followed up on the promise they made last month, when they fired Matt Williams after two seasons. General manager Mike Rizzo put managerial experience at the forefront of his search; Williams had not managed at any level before he was hired, which is reflective of a greater trend toward new-wave thinking across Major League Baseball.

Of the 29 managers hired by teams during the offseason in the last five years, 16 were undertaking the role for the first time. That list includes four of the six managers who were hired last fall; a fifth, the Houston Astros’ A.J. Hinch, had been a manager before but was still, at 40, the second youngest in the majors at the start of the season.

SEE ALSO: Stirred and smiling, Dusty Baker bounds into role as Nationals’ manager

The 66-year-old Baker runs counter to that philosophy. He is 19 days younger than the oldest manager in the majors, Terry Collins, who just took the New York Mets to the World Series. With 1,671 victories, Baker is second only to the San Francisco Giants’ Bruce Bochy, who has won 31 more games.

“It depends on how you think of yourself,” Baker said. “I don’t think of myself as 66 years old. I don’t know how old I am sometimes, and it really doesn’t matter. The way I look at it — not sounding cocky or nothing — but I don’t see a whole bunch of dudes out there that look better than me now.”

Rizzo said Baker’s age was not a deterrent throughout the hiring process, though he acknowledged that some view Baker as “an old-school dinosaur type of manager.” He praised the way Baker, a three-time National League Manager of the Year, approaches a game and communicates with his players.

“Davey Johnson was one of the greatest managers that we ever had here,” Rizzo said, referring to whom Williams replaced. “[He] was an older, experienced manager. I thought he did an extremely good job for us. Manager of the year with us. One of the great managers of all-time.

“Dusty falls in that same category. He’s experienced, he’s vibrant and he’s energetic. And, he’s a guy that, from all reports I’ve gotten from Jay Bruce and [Joey] Votto and Bryan Price and all the guys that have recently been with him [in Cincinnati], this guy’s a ball of fire and he gets after it.”

The Nationals had taken strides under Williams to incorporate an additional level of statistical analysis into their approach, including the hiring of a coach dedicated solely to defensive positioning. Williams, though, often defaulted to certain norms when managing, including turning to his bullpen for specific matchups in definite innings, and occasionally left the Nationals at a disadvantage.

Baker hasn’t been considered a particularly progressive manager, especially during his tenure with the Reds, when he was routinely derided by the analytical community for decisions he made. Rizzo tried to defend Baker’s willingness to adjust to new-wave thinking on Thursday, at one point citing Baker’s increased use of defensive shifting during his final year in Cincinnati as a sign he has adapted.

“He’s always been an outside-of-the-box thinker,” Rizzo said. “He’s certainly not a manage-by-the-numbers type of manager, but he should get far more credit for what he does between the lines and in the dugout as what he does in the clubhouse, which is impeccable. We couldn’t be happier to have Dusty in the dugout for us.”

Baker, of course, couldn’t be happier, either. Affable and jovial for nearly 40 minutes on Thursday, he acknowledged the Nationals will be the last team he manages. He knows that he’s starting with a more talented team than he has in his previous three stints — and he knows how important it will be for him to acclimate himself to the new responsibility.

Before the press conference began, Baker said he thought about a conversation he once had with former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, whom he considers one of his mentors. Certain traits are ingrained in Baker’s being. Others, he acknowledged, need to change.

“He told me, ‘Every once in a while, you have to recreate yourself as a man and as a person,’” Baker said. “I like to think that I’m in the middle of recreation now. I’ll let you know when I get a finished product.”

• Zac Boyer can be reached at zboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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