Dusty Baker can’t walk much of anywhere — not through his own clubhouse, not out to the field for batting practice, not across the street — without someone stopping him. Tuesday afternoon, it was Edwin Jackson, in front of Jackson’s locker, for a joke. It was two guys on the warning track en route to batting practice, stopping for hugs and a photo. Baker knew them, sure, but that’s not a prerequisite.
“He is so, so easy to get along with,” said Davey Lopes, Baker’s first base coach now, his teammate with the Los Angeles Dodgers some four decades ago.
That trait — affability, an accepting nature — doesn’t make a man a good baseball manager. But we have learned the following over nearly two seasons in Washington: Dusty Baker is a good manager.
Deep breaths, please, all you people in San Francisco who remember the 2002 World Series, and those Cubs fans who blame Baker for breaking down your young pitchers (even though those pitchers, no longer young, don’t blame him). We are talking about the Baker we see now, a few months after his 68th birthday, steering his second Washington Nationals team to his second straight division title. We are talking about what he has done, what he is doing — and, yes, we’ll get to what he will do — in Washington.
“That’s a really thankless job,” veteran outfielder Jayson Werth said. “It’s one of those things where Davey Johnson would say that players win games, managers lose games. That doesn’t really sound like the best job description. And he handles it really well.”
Davey Johnson? Ah, yes, Davey Johnson. His appearance here would serve as a good reminder that the Nationals, for all their winning ways over the past six seasons, have been unsteady at the helm. Johnson, a sage himself, won the first division title, back in 2012. He had the team to win another in 2013 but did not. Matt Williams, something of a colonel, won the second in 2014. He had the team to win another in 2015 but did not.
Williams’s tenure here points to the dangers of handing the Lamborghini keys to someone who has never so much as taken a Camry out onto the highway. Baker’s greatest trait is that he not only knows when to open it up — and we haven’t gotten there, not yet — but understands exactly what gear to shift to after, say, Game 44 or Game 94 or Game 144, which occurred Tuesday night against Atlanta at Nationals Park.
“A big part of a job is to bring a professional environment that allows players to be themselves but also instills a fundamental discipline,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “It is a game, but it’s also their jobs. So it’s a fine line between those two. He knows that line. He understands that line.”
Here is the problem with columns about baseball managers: If the team had a good season, then it’s easy to write that the manager did a fine job, that he had a feel for the clubhouse, that he understands the line between discipline and free expression. It’s simplistic arm-chair psychology that fills pages and fits a prescribed narrative. It serves no one.
But we know a couple of things about a couple of situations. The Nats’ clubhouse had been, at times, tense and terse. It is no longer. Plus, there’s Baker’s records and results.
“Most places I’ve been, if it wasn’t a good team, I helped make it into a good team,” he said. “And if it was pretty good, then I’d like to think that wherever I have been I left with it a better place than when I got there.”
The 1992 San Francisco Giants won 70 games. Baker took over the next year, and they won 103. (Yes, they signed Barry Bonds. Still . . . ) The 2002 Chicago Cubs won 67 games. Baker took over in 2003, and they won 88 and came a win away from the World Series. It took him longer in Cincinnati, which won 72 games before he arrived and 91 in his third season. Williams’s final Washington team won 83 games, while Baker’s two teams here have won 95 and entered play Tuesday on pace for 100 this season.
“He handles players as well as any manager that I’ve coached under,” Lopes said. This might not mean much from most people. But Lopes worked under Charlie Manuel and Bruce Bochy, two skippers with legendary reputations for creating clubhouse culture — and with World Series rings.
Take Baker’s work with young outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who looked lost a year ago, demoted to Class AAA and dejected after every strikeout — of which there were many. The Nationals even made a massive offseason trade for another center fielder, Adam Eaton, that essentially squeezed Taylor out of an everyday job.
And yet, Baker’s message to Taylor?
“He believed in me,” Taylor said.
Seems like a small thing. It’s huge. Now, with Eaton out since April, Taylor is playing elite defense in center and producing with pop at the plate. Is there a direct line between Baker and that performance? Maybe not. But it’s negligent to say Baker hasn’t made an impact there.
“He sees the big picture, a lot of times, when all you can see is, ‘Oh, no. Triple-A,’ ” Taylor said. “He’s supportive, a great leader. He’s been huge for my career.”
He has been huge for a lot of careers, which is why, at every stop the Nats make on the road, some ex-player seems to show up for an embrace. Over 22 seasons in the dugout, Baker has touched so many of them — and now he will go to the postseason for the ninth time. The thing is: He knew he would manage in October, so therefore his players knew, too.
“Not boasting or being arrogant or anything,” Baker said. “It’s just, I know I’m going to win. Especially in my position, coming up as a young kid — as an African American — I knew that I have to win. There’s no last-place finishes for me and [landing] another contract. If anything, they expect me to win everything or else I’m going to be out of here — which isn’t fair, but that’s just how it is.
“So therefore, I won’t disappoint them — and I won’t disappoint myself.”
Now, it would be weird to write about a manager’s touch with a team in September and not bring up the manager of the year award. There are still games to play, and Baker’s team might finish with 95 wins, or 100 wins and the best record in baseball, even though he has managed through injuries to Werth, Eaton, Taylor, Trea Turner, Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Stephen Drew, Brian Goodwin, Bryce Harper — and nearly his entire bullpen. Those things will factor into the end-of-year discussion, as will the finish for Torey Lovullo in Arizona, where the first-year manager has flipped the Diamondbacks from 69-win disappointment to absolute threat to win the whole thing.
So we’ll wait on the manager-of-the-year thing. Baker’s won it three times, anyway.
What we won’t wait for is another call to make sure Baker gets a contract for next season — and beyond. People with the Nationals believe this will happen, but it’s silly that it has taken this long, and he’ll cost more now than he would have in spring training. Sure, the health of Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner — who battled complications from cancer much of the year, problems that led to his leg being amputated last month — certainly dominated the thinking of the family that owns the club, and rightly so. So this is just another nudge to say, “Get it done.”
If they don’t, check back in this space.
What remains? Oh, of course, the matter of the prize that Baker hasn’t taken as a manager: the World Series. He has won just three of nine playoff series in which he has managed. We know for what he’s praying.
“God has a way of answering,” Baker said. “He didn’t answer all the time on my timeframe, but I’m always answered. Just got a few more requests.”
The requests — for Baker’s handshake, for his hug, for his time — keep coming. The strong request from the Nationals now: Keep him here, because everyone knows what it was like before he arrived, and they know what it’s like now, and with a second straight October upcoming, they know what they prefer.