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Dusty Baker returns to D.C. with a red-hot team and an ever-open heart

Dusty Baker, whose Houston Astros won their 11th straight game Friday night, harbors no ill-will toward Dave Martinez, the friend the Nationals hired to replace him. “Davey’s a very good manager, and he’s an excellent fisherman,” Baker said. (Nick Wass/AP)

Three-and-a-half years had passed since Dusty Baker last managed a game at Nationals Park. As he sat on the bench in the visitors’ dugout on a sticky, gray Friday afternoon, he counted the time in cranes.

“They’re doing a lot of building around here. Man, I sure wish I was invested in a couple buildings. Or in some big cranes,” Baker said, peering out beyond the outfield fence, where apartment buildings fill the space that existed there 3½ years ago.

As is his way in almost every big league city and especially those in which he has managed, Baker spent his first hours in Washington hunting down an old friend in the area by Nationals Park. He had been to that friend’s home many times before, but this time, he said, he couldn’t find it. Too much had changed. The Nationals are nearly unrecognizable from his time, too.

Since Baker last managed here in Game 5 of the 2017 National League Division Series, the Nationals slew October demons, won a World Series and watched an entire beloved core depart. Only one player from the 2017 NLDS roster, Victor Robles, is active this weekend against Baker’s charging Astros — winners of 11 straight entering Saturday. His former player and fishing buddy, Dave Martinez, sits where Baker used to sit in the home dugout — just like Baker took his former player Matt Williams’s seat there after the 2015 season.

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“It wasn’t awkward ’cause it wasn’t Davey’s fault,” Baker said of watching his job go to a manager with no experience after leading the Nationals to two straight playoff runs, both of which ended a few outs short of the league championship series. “Davey’s a great choice. Davey played for me. Davey was one of my favorite players. He learned a lot from being around Joe Maddon. Davey’s a very good manager, and he’s an excellent fisherman.”

Baker has operated in proximity to his former team for three seasons, sharing the Astros’ West Palm Beach spring training home with the Nationals. He has watched his son, Darren, establish himself as a Nationals minor leaguer. The mutual respect he shares with Martinez was clear one spring training afternoon when Martinez surprised Baker by sending his son out with the Nationals’ lineup card as his father brought out the Astros’.

“We remained friends throughout the years. What we do on the field, what we do, is something different than the relationship we have off the field. We share a passion for wine. We share a passion for fishing,” Martinez said. “So, like I said, I’ve learned a lot not only in the baseball world but as who he is and who he perceives to be helped me become the person that I am as well.”

Neither man would say so, but if there is any awkwardness to their relationship, it stems from that it was Martinez, not Baker, who won the World Series the Nationals brought Baker in to win. Baker and the Nationals were supposed to complete each other, to help each other end years of October disappointment and win their first titles together. As it happened, the Nationals got theirs without him. And after his banged-up Astros fell in six games to the Atlanta Braves in last year’s World Series, Baker is still waiting for his.

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But after becoming just the 12th manager in major league history to record 2,000 wins earlier this season, the 72-year-old isn’t waiting on much else in his career. He has managed so many places that he is accustomed to returning to old haunts — and being greeted with warmth even in stadiums where he once felt left out in the cold.

“Most of the time, they seem like they appreciate me more when I came back than when I left,” said Baker, whom the Nationals acknowledged with a tribute on the video screen just before Friday night’s game.

“The good thing is, I’ve seen a lot of people that were still here, even when I left,” Baker said. “A lot of the auxiliary people, people in the clubhouse, security guards, the people I really appreciated when I was here, and I felt a closeness to them.”

Fans aren’t piling into Nationals Park as reliably as they did when Baker managed those star-studded teams, but those who were there at game time Friday night cheered him. Somehow, a pandemic, a World Series title and a half-dozen apartment buildings had emerged since they had the chance to say thank you.

“I had great memories here. The people were great. I enjoyed the town,” Baker said. “Like I’ve said many times, I enjoyed the diversity, the educational level here. For a two-year period, this is probably as good of a period as I’ve had anywhere.”