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Nationals hire Dusty Baker as manager

Nationals hire Dusty Baker as manager

WASHINGTON DC, NOVEMBER 5: The Washington Nationals new manager, Dusty Baker models his new jersey with GM Mike Rizzo at Nationals Stadium in Washington DC, November 5, 2015. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In a stunning about-face, the Nationals announced the hiring of Dusty Baker as the sixth manager in the team’s brief history.

The Nationals chose Bud Black to be their manager last Wednesday, but contract talks broke down over the weekend, leading to the hiring of Baker, the other finalist, on a “multi-year deal” to replace fired Matt Williams.

“We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” Managing Principal Owner Theodore N. Lerner said in a statement. “During our broad search process we met with many qualified candidates, and ultimately it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”

[Manager search was a fiasco of the Lerner family’s own making]

The Nationals hired Dusty Baker to be their manager after contract talks with Bud Black broke down. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Baker, who is African American, becomes the second minority manager in baseball, joining Fredi Gonzalez, who is Latino, of the Braves. Baker is the second African American manager in Nationals history; Frank Robinson was the first.

Baker, 66, a former all-star outfielder, was the most experienced of the Nationals’ known candidates. He owns a .526 winning percentage as a major league skipper, and his 1,671 wins rank 17th all-time. He is a three-time National League Manager of the Year — in 1993, 1997 and 2003 – all with San Francisco. He has won five total division titles, and reached the playoffs seven times with three different teams — the Giants, Cubs and Reds. He guided the Giants to the 2002 World Series, where they lost in seven games to the Angels.

Following 10 years with the Giants, Baker left and won a division title with the Cubs in 2003, famously falling one foul ball and a win short of reaching the World Series again. Baker’s contract wasn’t renewed after four seasons and he managed the Reds for six years beginning in 2008. There, he won two divisions and reached the playoffs a third time. At each stop, Baker oversaw an immediate turnaround.

How Baker ended up with the Nationals is a circuitous story. Baker was fired after the Reds were swept out of the 2013 playoffs. Later that offseason, he asked his agent to contact Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo about Washington’s managerial vacancy, but Rizzo had already targeted Williams, with whom he had a close relationship. After a failed experience with first-time manager Williams, the Nationals now turn to Baker after a failed attempt to sign Black.

[The intertwined careers of Bud Black and Dusty Baker]

The Nationals, who have been reluctant to pay top dollar for managers in the past, settled last Wednesday on Black, who managed the Padres for eight and a half seasons. He accepted their job offer but the terms of the contract had to be ironed out. The first offer was for $1.6 million for one season. Black was “deeply offended” and the talks didn’t get back on track from there, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The high point of the negotiations was two guaranteed years with team options. As a point of comparison, Don Mattingly signed a four-year deal with the Marlins on Monday after five years managing the Dodgers. The talks with Black crumbled by Saturday and the Nationals were deep into negotiations with Baker by Monday.

“I am so pleased to welcome Dusty Baker to the Nationals family,” Rizzo said in a statement. “In getting to know Dusty and identifying what we wanted in the next on-field leader of our team, we are excited to have him on board. Dusty’s experience, as a winning player, coach, and manager, is vast and varied. We are excited to bring him to Washington and put his steady demeanor, knowledge and many years in the game to work in our favor. I think I speak for the entire organization when I say I am very much looking forward to working with him.”

Baker, who earned the nickname “Dusty” growing up in Northern California, was drafted out of American River College in Sacramento by the Braves in the 26th round of the 1967 draft. The hard-nosed outfielder’s career spanned 19 years in the major leagues, playing for the Braves, Dodgers, Athletics and Giants. He was an all-star in 1981 and 1982, also won a Gold Glove award, and hit .278 with 242 home runs and 1,013 RBI over 2,039 career games. He won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1981.

Baker became a major league coach with the Giants in 1988 and was promoted to manager in 1993 when Roger Craig retired. Oddly enough, Baker managed Williams for four seasons, and Williams considered Baker a mentor when he embarked on his managerial career. Baker wanted Williams to land the job in 2013. Before he interviewed for the Nationals job earlier this month, Baker called Williams to give him a heads up.

Baker has drawn criticism for overusing starting pitchers and over-reliance on outdated tactics, such as frequent sacrifice bunts. But wherever he has been, he has won, and he has handled star players with big personalities, from Barry Bonds to Sammy Sosa to Jeff Kent to Brandon Phillips. Baker is known for his ability to lead, discipline and connect with players.

[Fancy Stats: No, Dusty Baker won’t ruin Nats pitching staff]

Baker will be tasked with restoring relationships in the clubhouse and leading the Nationals to the playoffs again after a disastrous 2015 season. Considered a pre-season World Series favorite, the Nationals sputtered because of injuries, under-performance, roster holes and managerial issues, finishing 83-79 and missing the playoffs. Williams’ relationships with some players frayed deeper into the season and his handling of the pitching staff was often questioned.

During this managerial search, the Nationals cast a wider net and admitted that previous experience would be a priority. They interviewed at least seven candidates, a few with many years of minor league managerial experience but none in the majors. But the Nationals focused more on veteran leaders.

The choice came down to Black, who was liked by some in the front office, and Baker, who impressed the Lerner family so much earlier this month that the Nationals asked him to return Washington early last week for a second interview. So did Black, who played under Baker in San Francisco in 1993 and 1994, and beat him out for the Padres job in 2006.

Baker is a baseball lifer but has varying interests; he just released a book about his love of music, is an avid gardener and has his own vineyard, and invests in a solar power company. In Washington, he inherits a team that, with a few tweaks, has the talent in place to be a division contender in 2016 thanks to Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.

The shape of Baker’s coaching staff is unclear. When the Nationals fired Williams, they also dismissed his coaches. A few were told they would be recommended to the new manager and some, such as popular former bench Randy Knorr, took other jobs within the organization.

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