CINCINNATI — Dusty Baker felt a little strange in his return to the place he used to call home.
It didn’t take long for him to get welcomed, though. The Washington Nationals’ manager got a haircut and felt some love from Cincinnati Reds fans who would love to have him back.
Baker returned to town for a weekend series against the Reds, who fired him after another early-round playoff exit in 2013. Since then, the Reds have become one of the National League’s worst teams. The Nationals entered Friday leading the NL East.
The start of the series marked Baker’s first time back in Cincinnati for baseball. He was part of an event at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in November that allowed him to emotionally move past his unexpected departure.
“That helped some,” Baker said on Friday, sitting in a room at Great American Ball Park reserved for special occasions. “I know a lot of people here, met a lot of people here who were good to me.”
Baker managed the Reds for six seasons, helping a young team become a contender ahead of schedule. Cincinnati won the NL Central in 2010 and reached the playoffs in three of four years, its best stretch of playoff appearances since the “Big Red Machine” teams of the 1970s.
After a loss to Pittsburgh in the wild card game in 2013, the Reds fired Baker with a year left on his contract. The front office wanted to keep the club intact but while firing hitting coach Brook Jacoby. Baker suggested they keep Jacoby and make some changes in the roster.
Cincinnati lost 86 games in 2014 and 98 games last year, and the Reds are on pace for what would be only the second season of 100 or more losses in their history.
Baker got in town with his team and had some time to get re-acclimated. He went to his former barber shop for a close trim; he rubbed his hand over the top of his head to show off the new cut. He also paid attention to the chatter.
“Guys were talking stuff in the barbershop,” Baker said. “Most people, they sort of tell you: ‘Hey, we miss you.’ I started thinking about way back, one time an old girlfriend said she missed me after she broke up with me, and maybe you weren’t so bad after all.”
Baker was surprised when the Reds decided to launch into a full-scale rebuilding last season. He thought the team could have remained a contender with some tweaks.
“We were close, really close,” Baker said, “but people do what they want to do with their system, and I’m very happy where I am. I really like Washington, D.C.”
Baker remains close to several Reds players, including outfielder Jay Bruce, who sent him photos when his child was born last month. Joey Votto approached Baker during batting practice on Friday, rubbing his close-trimmed hair while Baker showed his own.
Bruce and Billy Hamilton were among the former players who went out of their way to seek him out. So did the coaches.
“You live and die and cry and laugh with a bunch of guys for a long period of time, you form bonds that are there forever,” Baker said.
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