When the Washington Nationals hired Dusty Baker in November 2015, owner Mark Lerner sat down for an interview with MASN and spoke very highly of their new manager.
“He has had decades of success as a player, as a coach, as a manager,” Lerner said. “We also got some really high recommendations from respected people in the baseball community that went a long way with us. He will help us compete and bring a better level of on-field performance and hopefully that will transform itself into reaching our goals.
“He’s quite a guy and we’re lucky to have him.”
Well, what has changed since then? Baker still has decades of success. He is still widely respected in the baseball community. He helped you compete and brought a better level of on field performance. He’s still quite a guy.
But are the Lerners not feeling so lucky anymore?
If they feel that they drew a winning hand with the hiring of Baker — an awkward hiring process, remember, that had first suggested that the Lerners were feeling lucky to have Bud Black as the manager of the Washington Nationals — why aren’t they doubling down on it?
Why is Dusty Baker, who brought this team back from the Matt Williams carnage of 2015 and led them back to the National League East division title last year and 95 wins, walking around their new spring training complex in West Palm Beach with the name tag “lame duck?”
Why haven’t the Lerners sent the necessary signal to the clubhouse that Baker has the full authority and backing of ownership with an extension of his current contract, which ends this season?
Well, because the Lerners don’t really value baseball managers that much. Perhaps they get the job confused with office manager at one of their many office buildings.
Joe Maddon, hired a year before Baker to manage the Chicago Cubs, given a five year, $25 million contract? You would never see that happen here.
That $25 million is more than double the total amount of money the Lerners have paid managers since they acquired the team in 2006.
The whole Bud Black fiasco took place because the Lerners thought so little of the position that their initial offer to Black— who they wanted— was a one-year, $1.6 million contract. You and I might be happy with managing a baseball team for $1.6 million, but inside the industry of baseball — the culture where the Lerners are operating — an offer like that is, as Black reportedly believed, an insult. Fortunately for the Lerners, it turned out OK because it resulted in the hiring of Baker.
You may not have been the biggest fan of Davey Johnson, but after his Nationals won the 2012 NL East, he sought a new deal. The Lerners agreed to pay him an unprecedented amount for this organization — $4 million — but only if it was a one-year deal and if Johnson agreed to step down after that.
Matt Williams was the manager of this team in 2014 because the Lerners didn’t want to pay Davey Johnson nearly three times what they wound up paying Williams.
The $4 million figure was the market at the time — set, ironically, by Baker, who, after leading the Cincinnati Reds to a 97-win season and the NL Central crown, was given a two-year, $8 million extension.
He’s getting half that now to manage the Nationals — and that two-year deal expires at the end of this season.
Baker, 67, who has 1,766 career wins, putting him 17th on the all-time managers list, was asked by reporters in spring training about his desire for a contract extension.
“I mean, everybody likes security,” Baker told reporters. “Everybody likes to know what their future is going to be even though it doesn’t amount to much. But I’m very confident that we’d get things worked out. You’d like to do it sooner rather than later because I don’t want to be a distraction to my team.”
And there you have it. Fans may not particularly like it, but contracts and money translate to influence and respect in baseball clubhouses. The issue for Baker is that even though he is Dusty Baker, and with that comes a boatload of influence and respect, the fact is that a player in that clubhouse with a contract beyond this year could, if he so chose, tune the manager out at some point during the season. Why should I listen to him? He’s gone, and I’ll be here.
A contract extension helps make the manager’s voice resonate in the clubhouse.
Baker, rightfully so, believes he has earned the extension.
“I see my importance in the organization has grown since I’ve been here,” Baker told reporters. “That’s worth something. And as much as we’re a young organization, I’ve been around a while. Everybody comes to my office, from the trainers to the PR department to the media department to the community relations department. I feel like I’m helping out on all fronts.”
Maybe not all fronts.
If Baker could have picked up a hammer or drill and helped the Lerners cut some of their costs for the new West Palm Beach spring training complex, he might have already gotten that extension.
Maybe that extension got lost in the reported $15 million worth cost overruns the Lerners have had in the construction of their new Florida home.
Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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