It ended in a paragraph typed on Washington Nationals letterhead and disseminated to reporters: Dusty Baker will not return as manager in 2018, the announcement said. The team thanked him for his service. Then it was done.
That service included regular seasons of 95 and 97 wins, the first back-to-back division titles in team history, and two losses in the National League Division Series. Baker, 68, joined the Nationals by signing a two-year deal worth $4 million that he felt was below market value, and seemed likely to garner a raise on his next deal with the team. That deal never materialized. They didn’t even negotiate.
“This was a pure baseball decision. Again, our goal is to win a World Championship,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “… This has nothing to do with negotiations or dollars. There was not a negotiation with Dusty. I talked to Dusty this morning and told him about our decision. He took the news with his usual class and dignity and professionalism. We hung up the phone with a good taste in both of our mouths.”
Baker flew back to California Thursday not knowing his fate. Rizzo said the Nationals made the decision late Thursday night before alerting Baker of their choice Friday morning — via a phone call. Baker did not respond to initial requests for his side of the story. He did return a text message in which he said he enjoyed his time with the Nationals and “wanted so much to win for everyone.”
So the Nationals will begin their second managerial search in three offseasons immediately. They have tried the inexperienced, fresh-faced approach in Matt Williams: After a division title in 2014, order disintegrated violently in 2015. They tried the veteran, players’ manager approach, and decided that did not work, either. They also will need a new coaching staff, as all of the coaches on Baker’s staff saw their contracts expire after this season, too.
All season, Rizzo said publicly he expected a deal to get done with Baker. The two occasionally disagreed on in-game decisions, but generally speaking, Rizzo thought Baker handled the clubhouse and personalities well. Baker also fit the city well. And he won. As Rizzo made clear his intentions, Baker made clear he wanted to return. He came to love the city, the people, and the mission of bringing optimism back to the D.C. sports community. So what changed? According to Rizzo, the Nationals did not advance past the National League Division Series, and that wasn’t enough.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions the ownership group and I have had to make since we’ve been in Washington,” Rizzo told reporters in a teleconference Friday afternoon. “We’ve come such a long way. Winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions is not enough.”
Rizzo praised Baker repeatedly for his class and dignity and called him a “Hall of Fame-type” manager more than once in his teleconference. Asked what Baker lacked that might help another manager lead the Nationals further, Rizzo dodged and praised Baker again. Baker’s missteps in handling the announcement of his starting pitcher for Game 4 of the National League Division Series caused a stir. After a rainout seemingly made Stephen Strasburg available to start, poor health jeopardized that status, but in speaking to the media, Baker mixed up the days Strasburg threw his bullpen session and cited that as a factor, making the Nationals appear disorganized and evasive on a national stage.
Little miscommunications such as that marked Baker’s tenure. By design, he deferred to pitching coach Mike Maddux on matters of the pitching staff. And while his lineups didn’t always align with prevailing statistical wisdom, Baker seemed to have uncommon feel for the needs of his veteran stars. He nursed Ryan Zimmerman through a healthy renaissance season, for example. Zimmerman, Werth, Daniel Murphy and others praised the way he managed their playing time and psyches.
“The last thing we were talking about and thinking about [after Game 5] is these type of issues,” Rizzo said. “So no, we didn’t take any advice or have any comments from the players on this.”
But Baker’s outspokenness about his contract and money rubbed some in the front office the wrong way. Earlier this season, Baker said he felt he was underpaid compared to other winning, veteran managers. Rizzo said money was not the problem, and people close to Baker confirmed the notion that he did not negotiate this week at all. No Nationals manager has lasted three full seasons on the job. They have won four division titles in the last six seasons — with three managers.
“I think we’ve hired managers in the developmental curve of this organization that fit for us at that particular time,” Rizzo said. “In the infancy of the Nationals, we hired managers that could help us develop through this thing. As we’ve gotten better, as our expectations grew, we went with managers we thought could get us to the next level. That’s always been our goal. That continues to be our goal. As the managers came and went, they were indicative of where we were in the developmental curve of the organization.”
So now the Nationals must turn their attention elsewhere, to a managerial market that has been developing without them. Up-and-comer Alex Cora seems a likely candidate, though reports say he will be named Red Sox manager after the ALCS. Former Tigers manager Brad Ausmus also pop up among potential candidates. But with the Red Sox, Phillies, Mets and others still looking for managers, the Nationals likely will have to bid — in length of deal and terms — for the big names. They do not have a history of committing much to managers.
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