The first clear on-the-field moment that helped define how different the new manager was from the old manager put Dusty Baker in trouble with his mother.
In mid-April, when it was still cold enough for gloves and jackets at the park, Bryce Harper doubled home two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. Television cameras locked on Baker as he threw fists in the air then dispatched a celebratory curse word between yelling “yeah” twice. He said afterward his mom, Christine, would be calling him as soon as his press conference ended.
The emotional burst was an 180-degree turn from former manager Matt Williams; a much more stoic and rigid man. Baker, 67, is an intriguing blend of baseball player, renaissance man and Forrest Gump. His life in and out of baseball is saturated with historical moments. He’s a willing storyteller, and most of the stories involve him. There is no way to prove the dramatic style change at manager is the lone or even main reason the Washington Nationals went from an 83-win team with teammates choking each other to a 95-win outfit that easily won the National League East. At the least, Baker righted the team and carried through on its regular-season promise. He also followed through on what he was advertised to be.
When Baker emerged from the bungled managerial hiring process the Nationals went through in the offseason, his new players called around. Max Scherzer talked to friends still in the league and out of it who had played for Baker. Jayson Werth anticipated a different vibe from Baker. When Baker did a pirouette while modeling his new Nationals jersey at his opening press conference, an organization known for its buttoned-down persona knew it was about to receive a jolt.
The zaps kept coming. Fans who pressed against the glass last season to boo Williams in a postgame press conference, chanted Baker’s name. Unofficially, Baker mentioned Hank Aaron 538 times. He talked about growing wine grapes, numerous conversations with his son, his time as an all-star in Los Angeles and how he is back for the singular reason of winning a World Series. He hasn’t flatly said so, but it’s clear Baker knows that winning a title will deliver a level of blowback to his detractors that he never could with words or another action. Among his amiableness is an undercurrent of me against the world inside of Baker.
Baker has asked for more attitude from his team. Recently, he referred to the group as a “baby-making team” when discussing the new fatherhood of a player. He started spring training by calling, “Hey, dude” to players he did not know, then leaning back to check their jersey when they walked past. Two days before the playoffs, he gave a 575-word answer about his reaction to being traded to the Dodgers 41 years ago. It included joy, packing his Porsche and selling his Thunderbird to his mother-in-law.
“I always wanted to be a Dodger, because I heard the Dodgers had the best athletes, the pretty uniforms, the good bodies,” Baker said. “And I was like, ‘Shoot, you’re talking about me.’”
Baker is often in his street clothes around the clubhouse. His office perpetually has one friend or another sitting on the leather sofa. He has handed out so much wine, varied types made by his company and others, that if you had not received some, your situation was the oddity.
Chris Heisey had been managed by Baker previously in Cincinnati. He and bench coach Chris Speier, a longtime compatriot of Baker’s, noticed the same thing: This man yelling expletives and scurrying down the dugout to high-five and hug Max Scherzer when the pitcher was vaulted into position for his 20th win, is a mellowed version of Baker. That’s in no way to insinuate he is mellow. It’s a relative assessment.
“I know now that Dusty earlier on, this game wore on him,” Speier said. “I could tell. This time around, he just seems a lot happier and a lot more at peace. He doesn’t take defeat, doesn’t take losses, doesn’t take down times as hard as he used to. It’s really refreshing. Makes us turn the page a lot quicker, too.”
It was tone that Werth noticed. Everyone knew Baker would be a massive divergence from Williams. It wasn’t a matter of preference, it just was how it was going to be because of age, experience and demeanor.
“I know getting to spring training, one of the things I said is he’s a real warm and generous guy,” Werth said. “You could kind of get a sense for that warmth when you walked into the clubhouse and how much different it was from the year before to this year. I would say that holds true. He’s a real inviting guy; he’s got people around him, friends around him. He’s a generous person.
“He’s gone all season — we’ve been winning so that makes things a lot easier, obviously — but we haven’t had too many issues on this team. We’ve had our disagreements and a couple tiffs here and there, but never really ran into an all-out brawl or a blowup situation like most teams do. I think every year you go through something. We kind of didn’t really have that. I think that’s a testament to Dusty and the way he runs the ship. It’s a warm place, it’s an inviting place and that’s the type of guy he is.”
The people Scherzer talked to suggested that Baker will be bringing a large personality, be willing to “fight for you” and can bring the group together. Scherzer watched, then realized the scouting report he received was accurate. He’s fully behind Baker’s emotional outbursts in the dugout, “I love it when people go nuts,” and easily defines the impact of Baker’s style.
“That’s what we needed,” Scherzer said.
Baker knows the scrutiny and weight the playoffs bring. He is entering his eighth postseason as a manager. He was two innings away from a title with the San Francisco Giants in 2002. The Chicago Cubs narrowly missed a World Series appearance under his leadership. The Nationals have recent postseason meltdowns chained to their ankles. Baker’s past and the Nats’ history each bring weight to this postseason. If Baker can lead the Nationals to 11 more wins, the call from his mom will have room for forgiveness no matter what he says.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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