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)

If Dusty Baker or Bud Black ever walked into the offices of the Lerner family on Tower Oaks Boulevard in Rockville, they would see a sprawling room and walk on marble floors and smell fresh flowers. Early last week, the Lerners interviewed both men for the job of managing their baseball team, the Washington Nationals. They chose Black, and by last Wednesday morning, from their ornate dwelling, they offered him the position.

The Lerners became wealthy owning shopping malls, and if they walked into one of the stores housed inside a palace in Tysons Corner seeking to buy an item, they would have to pay the listed price. They somehow have failed to grasp the same principle applies to Major League Baseball. There is a standard compensation required to hire an established manager such as Baker or Black, a proper way to do business with proud baseball men.

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

For seven years, the lesson never took. Maybe the Lerners learned from Monday night’s fiasco, a stain that will linger. As first reported, the Nationals shifted away from Black and began talks with Baker to manage their team. Tuesday morning, they announced a multi-year deal with Baker, a three-time division winner, World Series participant and 20-year managerial veteran. They got lucky a manager with the accomplishments of Baker viewed the events of the past week and agreed to lead them.

The Nationals decided on Black last Wednesday. Negotiations commenced. The first offer the Nationals made Black, a manager fresh off an eight-year stint with the San Diego Padres, would have guaranteed him $1.6 million for one season. It left Black “deeply offended,” according to one person familiar with the situation. In the end, the Lerners would not exceed an offer of two years with multiple team options. By Saturday, talks had crumbled. They didn’t get their man, because they insulted him.

For context, Don Mattingly – a manager with more division titles but less experience than Black – signed a four-year contract with the Miami Marlins. The Lerners made Jeffrey Loria appear decisive and considerate.

The contract length matters for financial reasons, of course. It also allows a manager to do his job. With two years guaranteed – or one – handling a clubhouse of unfamiliar personalities would have been untenable. The first step is to gain credibility and respect, and that kind of contract prevents it. It forces a manager to look over his shoulder and defend himself rather than protect and motivate players. It breeds dysfunction.

These are some words overheard and texted Monday night from people in the game regarding the Nationals:


“They don’t know what they’re doing.”

“Dumpster fire.”

“All about money.”

The Lerners should know better by now. In 2011, Jim Riggleman resigned in the midst of a winning streak while making $600,000 on the final year of his deal. It took the Nationals months to finalize Davey Johnson’s contract details after he won the NL manager of the year award in 2012. He ended up with a $4 million contract for one season of managing and several years as a “consultant,” during which time he has done no work for Washington. When the Nationals hired Matt Williams, they gave him two years guaranteed. The same offseason, the Tigers, Phillies, Cubs and Reds guaranteed their first-year managers three seasons.

Riggleman, Johnson and Williams all had reason for taking short money on short deals. Riggleman had graduated to the position from interim; Johnson had been out of big-league dugouts for a decade; Williams had a close relationship with General Manager Mike Rizzo and had never managed before.

The man stuck in the middle is Rizzo. He has not returned calls or texts. People close to him believe he was embarrassed by the Black situation, over which he had little control. The managerial crisis will not prompt him to bolt, but his situation can be considered tenuous. Rizzo’s contract is guaranteed for 2016, but the Lerners hold team options for 2017 and 2018. Despite this past season’s disappointment, postseason flops and the misfire on Williams, Rizzo has built the Nationals into an annual NL East contender and won two division titles.

This season, the Lerners shelled out $165 million in payroll for players, sixth in the majors. Good for them. They still lack an understanding of how to treat people within their industry. Consider how out of touch offering Black two years on short money is. Black would have had to bring a whole staff, and he likely wanted to bring along confidant Rick Renteria as his bench coach. Renteria, as a former big league manager, would have garnered a higher salary than a typical bench coach. Does it sound as though the Lerners would realize that? Like they have any handle on standard practices?

Within baseball, there existed a belief that the Lerners did not understand how to pay managers or deal with certain employees. At a stage when they should know better, it has exploded into full public view. The end of the season revealed top-down dysfunction. This makes it worse. This is a mess. What must Baker have thought as he mulled this offer?

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