WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Dusty Baker is acquainted with long championship droughts. He was one of many managers to fail to snap the Chicago Cubs’ stretch without a World Series title, the longest in major league history. He came close. In 2003, the first of his four seasons on the North Side, he led the Cubs to a division title and the National League Championship Series. But then Bartman happened and Baker never reached the postseason again in Chicago.
But the Cubs, you may have heard, ended their 108 years of misery with a championship last October and passed the torch to one of two franchises, depending on how one measures dry spells. The Cleveland Indians franchise has gone the longest without a World Series (68 years), longer than the Expos/Nationals’ 48 years, but Washington has gone the longest as a city/region without one. The last time a Washington baseball franchise won a World Series was in 1924 as the Senators. It’s been 96 years, though baseball was absent for 34 of them, from 1971 until the Nationals were born in 2005. Twelve years into their existence, the Nationals have won three division title over the last five years, but have not advanced beyond the National League Division Series.
“We’ll win it here, too,” Baker said Friday. “We’ll end it here for the whole city. That’s my goal. Not just ending it for the organization, but for the whole city.”
Baker knows Washington’s pro sports gloom extends beyond baseball and into the three other major sports. Washington’s last championship was the Redskins’ Super Bowl XXVI win in 1992, a quarter-century ago, which gives the city the third-longest drought for a city/region with at least two teams in the major pro sports leagues. The Wizards haven’t won since in 1978 when they were the Bullets. The Capitals have never won a Stanley Cup and only reached the finals once. He’s only been around a year, but Baker quickly noticed some fans expect the worst.
“I think it would bring a positive attitude to the city because I was watching the Capitals and people in the bar — it was 3-1, and everyone was wondering when they were going to lose, when they were going to blow it,” Baker said. “And I was like, ‘How can you think like that? And they were like, ‘Well, you haven’t been here long enough.’”
The 67-year-old Baker, who is in the final year of his contract, has his own personal championship drought: he won a World Series as a player with the Dodgers in 1981, but has fallen short in each of his 21 seasons as manager of the Giants, Cubs, Reds, and Nationals. Winning it in Washington, a city he repeated Friday he likes a lot, would be fitting.
“I think about unifying a town and it would put the Nationals on the map,” Baker said. “I mean, rightfully so, it’s a Redskins town. … They’ve been there a long time and they got a history of success. Heck, I called Joe Gibbs last year when I got here and asked him some questions about some things. You can just have the whole city start thinking positive.”
Of course, another team could beat the Nationals to it. The Capitals own the best record in the NHL, the Wizards are third in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, and the Redskins, well, never mind.
>>> Bryce Harper clubbed his fourth home run of the spring in Washington’s 7-1 loss to the Cardinals Friday at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches Friday. It was one of the Nationals’ three hits on the day, which featured a five-run fourth inning for the Cardinals fueled by Adam Eaton losing a flyball in the sun and a Stephen Drew error at second base attempting to turn a double play with Trevor Gott and Matt Grace on the mound.
“I’m glad he’s ahead of pace and ahead of schedule and that’ll be big going into April to get us off to a good start,” Baker said. “Now we just have to be conscious of him kind of getting stale or getting bored. But I don’t see him doing that. That’s what Barry Bonds used to do. He would come in, get his stroke together, and then get kind of bored. And then he’d have to turn it back on again.”
Joe Blanton, who signed with the Nationals on March 2, made his debut in the sixth inning and it was brief. The right-hander induced a pop out, struck a batter looking, and got a groundout for a perfect frame.
“Blanton was surprisingly sharp for his first time out,” Baker said. “But that goes to show you how he’s really worked in the offseason…[His pitches] were all strikes are near strikes.”