- The Washington Times
Friday, October 20, 2017

In a surprising move Friday afternoon, the Washington Nationals announced that Dusty Baker will not return as manager in 2018.

Baker received a two-year deal in 2016 and went through last season knowing his contract would be coming to an end. He publicly stated in spring training that he would prefer an extension. Once that did not happen, the Nationals and Baker went silent on the topic for most of the season before each side publicly saying they thought a deal would get done in the offseason until the Nationals decided what Baker had delivered — two division titles in two seasons — was not sufficient.

“Today, the Washington Nationals announced that Dusty Baker will not return as manager of the club in 2018,” the Nationals said in a statement. “The Lerner family, on behalf of the entire organization, would like to thank Baker for his two years in the dugout. He led the team to the first back-to-back division titles in our history and represented our club with class on and off the field. We wish him the best going forward.

“The contracts for the Major League coaching staff have also expired. The Nationals’ search for a new manager will begin immediately, and we will work with that person to build his coaching staff.”

Baker piled up 192 victories during his two years in Washington. His teams were eliminated at home each year in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.

“I’d like to say it was one of the most difficult decisions the ownership group and myself had to make since we’ve been here with Washington,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “Dusty has been a great representative of the Washington Nationals during his tenure here. A class man, a Hall of Fame-type of manager. I think the one thing that happened from the regular season to the postseason, we’ve come such a long way in the Nationals organization. In 2009, we were hoping to improve our record from 2008. In 2012, we were hoping to make the playoffs. And now, our expectations have grown to the fact that winning a lot of regular-season games and winning divisions, are not enough. Our goal is to win a world championship.”

When reached for comment Friday, Baker said it was, “too soon,” to talk about not being retained. He recently said he wanted to keep managing.

“What keeps me going is I love what I’m doing,” Baker said last week. “I love competition. In our world, people always want people to quit, and I hear it all the time.

“So what keeps me going is the quest for excellence, the thrill of competition, plus there’s a few things that I want to accomplish in life. And until I figure out why the lows of losing don’t match the highs of winning, then I’ll probably be a manager for awhile. Not a long while, but a while.”

Dismissing yet another manager keeps a trend running within the organization. Baseball returned to the District in 2005. Since, the Lerner family has gone through six managers. Whomever is in the manager’s office in 2018 will be the seventh manager, and surely wary.

There was no negotiation with Baker about a new contract. Instead, the organization decided late Thursday night to not bring Baker back. He was told during a phone call Friday morning. Rizzo said the sides left with “a good taste in both of our mouths.”

Rizzo twice evaded questions about what specifically it was about Baker that would not allow the Nationals to reach their goal of winning a World Series.

“Our expectations are high, we’re very focused in our goal, and that’s to win a world championship,” Rizzo said. “We decided to make this move in accordance with that goal.”

Baker, 68, was hired in 2016 following the dismissal of Matt Williams and rejection of a low contract offer by Bud Black, now the Colorado Rockies manager. Baker sashayed his way into his introductory press conference, immediately changing the vibe around the organization from the rigid Williams to one led by an outspoken personality. It was an 180-degree change in personality, as so often happens in pro sports.

He went on to bring his personal vibe to the clubhouse. Baker would leave bottles of wine from his winery in players’ lockers. Anything free he received — which happened often — would later be distributed. One afternoon he opened a box of NFL paraphernalia in his office and instructed a team employee to find out which players rooted for that particular team, then to hand out the stuff to them.

His office was usually a social place with the door open and a photo of his son, Darren, hanging on the wall amid other decorations. It was also where he tinkered with lineups, went over reports and pondered strategy for that day, that month, that season. Baker came to the Nationals with a reputation as a player’s manager — one day late this season he said he didn’t know how you could not be that type of leader — and as a faulted tactician.

Baker, predictably, received a large dose of blame after the Nationals lost a zany Game 5 of the NLDS this season. He brought in Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in the middle of the game, and Scherzer failed. He did not pinch-hit for struggling Matt Wieters during the game and Wieters did not come through.

In some circles, he was chastised as the lead culprit for the Nationals failing to get out of the first round for the fourth time in six years. That circle apparently includes the team ownership.

In others, player performance was blamed. Wieters made crucial fielding mistakes. The Cubs scored four runs in Scherzer’s lone inning. Starter Gio Gonzalez pitched poorly. Jayson Werth lost a ball in the lights, allowing a run to score in what became a one-run loss and the longest nine-inning game in postseason history.

It’s not just Baker who is gone, becoming the second manager of a first-place team this season not to return. Pitching coach Mike Maddux, arguably the best in the industry, and first base coach Davey Lopes, who carries a similar title, are out. Hitting coach Rick Schu and third base coach Bob Henley were the lone holdovers from Williams’ staff. Now, they’re out, too.

The Nationals’ job is now one of four open in the major leagues and one of three vacant in the National League East. Boston is expected to hire Alex Cora in the coming days, cutting the openings to three. Rizzo said the team’s hunt for its next manager will begin immediately and that the new manager will select his staff.

Also notable is that Baker, Terry Collins, formerly of the Mets, and Pete Mackanin, who managed the Phillies in 2017, were the three oldest managers in baseball before they were dismissed in one fashion or another.

During last summer, former Nationals manager, and now Cincinnati Reds bench coach, Jim Riggleman, was in Nationals Park with the Reds six years to the day after he suddenly decided to quit because the Nationals would not give him a contract extension. He was asked if there was a growing negative sentiment in baseball around how the Nationals handled managers.

“I think that’s there right now,” Riggleman said at the time. “The day Dusty signs his next contract, that all goes away. That’s looming. If something totally unexpected happened and [Dusty] wasn’t here, then that talk would continue through next year. The day that he signs his contract, I think it’s going be, ‘OK, we all knew this was going to happen. It’s all good. Let’s go to work.’”

He never signed.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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