After letting Dusty Baker’s contract expire Friday, the Washington Nationals have a tough job on their hands. Better big league managers are hard to find.
Good luck, Nats. You will need it. You don’t miss your sanity till the crazy arrives.
Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo explained Friday, sort of, why Baker won’t be back — even though he described Baker as “a Hall of Fame-type manager” and someone who represented the club “with class and dignity at all times.”
“Regular season wins and division titles,” Rizzo said, “are not enough. . . . With success comes expectations. . . . Our goal is a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
I asked Rizzo on his conference call: If any of a dozen plays or umpires calls or replay decisions had come out differently last week in Game 5 against the Cubs and the Nats had advanced to the National League Championship Series, would Baker be back as manager?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t quite hear that question,” Rizzo said. I don’t doubt him. But it does show how slender the threads are on which careers and franchise directions hang.
I have covered quite a few managers better than Baker at in-game decisions, lineup construction and deciding when to bench a slumping star in the middle of a playoff series. However, they are all in the Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the Nats will find such a manager for next season, when they will be stacked with talent, even before they add any offseason pieces through trades, free agent signings or internal promotions. Just getting back Adam Eaton to replace the (presumably) departing Jayson Werth (.226) will be a major upgrade. But I wouldn’t be able to find that hypothetical manager for 2018, even with a blank checkbook.
Nats fans often say, “In Rizzo we trust.” How on earth did the GM create a decent bullpen at the trade deadline? Not one pundit, local or national, mentioned Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson or Brandon Kintzler as possibilities for the Nats. Rizzo got them all.
In decision-making, there is only one hole in Rizzo’s socks. He had a chance to hire a manager after 2013 and decided that Matt Williams was an excellent choice, saying publicly and privately that Williams was going to be “a great manager.” Williams lacked only one skill: communicating with humans. By his second season, Williams was avoiding his own clubhouse in the afternoon so he could find shoulders on other floors of Nationals Park to commiserate on. That was a miss.
Here are Rizzo’s challenges. First, find a veteran manager with a track record anywhere close to Baker’s who is available or likely to be out of work soon. There are none, except perhaps John Farrell, who inherited a Red Sox team built by Theo Epstein and previously managed by Terry Francona and took it to the 2013 World Series title in his first year in Boston.
In 2014, Brad Ausmus was hailed as an ultimate managerial candidate, an eloquent but tough Dartmouth graduate who was up to speed on the new analytics but played 1,971 games in the majors as a catcher. How could he fail? This year, the Detroit Tigers fired him. The X-factor nobody spotted: He lost more than he won. Maybe that was his apprenticeship, like Joe Torre’s miserable early years.
When the Nats look at veteran candidates, they all will fall under the long shadow of Baker, who ranks 14th in career victories and has a career winning percentage of .532. That is an interesting neighborhood, the .530s. It includes Joe Maddon, Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog, Torre and Francona.
Here are some distinguished managers below .530: Tom Lasorda (.526), Buck Showalter (.518), Lou Piniella (.517), Farrell (.517) and three-time World Series winner Bruce Bochy, who’s a bit under .500.
Now for Rizzo’s second challenge: Find a rookie manager who can walk into a clubhouse with personalities and résumés as big as those of Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Wieters and immediately command respect while maintaining the upbeat, constructive clubhouse atmosphere.
Find a rookie manager — and there are only two kinds, veterans and rookies — who will have his tough decisions not only obeyed but swallowed by the entire team without indigestion, including in October.
Maybe Bud Black could do all those things.
After all, the former pitcher, still only 60, just took the Colorado Rockies from 75-87 in 2016 to 87-75 and a playoff spot in his first season at the helm.
Black illustrates what may be Rizzo’s final challenge: The Nationals’ principal owners, the Lerner family, consistently have shied from paying market price for any manager. All came inexpensively because they were out of favor or past age 65, such as Davey Johnson and Baker, or rookies who craved a chance, such as Manny Acta and Williams.
Two years ago, the Nats were down to Black and Baker as their primary candidates. Then things went sideways. The Nats, in Black’s view, lowballed him with what, in the Nats’ view, was merely a first offer. Ted Lerner didn’t love Black’s desire to discuss salary at their first meeting rather than stick to the wonders of managing his Nats. Poor chemistry. Within 24 hours, Baker had the job.
In my experience, the person you call in for the first job interview is probably your first choice. And the guy you call within hours to smooth out a sticky situation — as the Nats did with Baker — is probably your satisfactory fallback.
Maybe Baker, 68, wasn’t quite a Hall of Fame manager. Though he was great at managing people and clubhouses, perhaps he was just a solid, conventional manager within games who thought showing confidence in his mainstays was more important than making analytically brilliant or intuitive moves.
But consider this: Almost everyone in MLB agreed that if he had won a World Series either last season or this one, he would have been a lock for Cooperstown. Anyone who fits that description must be pretty darn good.
Perhaps the Nats will find a wonderful manager who will lead them to parades and still be a shining star a decade from now. Or maybe they will get lucky like the Orioles did when Joe Altobelli won the 1983 World Series after replacing the retired Earl Weaver, who couldn’t get them over the finish line.
Baker was not such a good manager that he couldn’t be fired. It’s happened three times before. But he was a marvelous, multifaceted person who brought smiles, empathy, strength of character and laughter everywhere he went. Within days of his taking the job, all thoughts of Jonathan Papelbon choking Harper in the dugout at the end of the 2015 season evaporated, though they both still were in the same clubhouse. No problem. Dusty was there, too.
In his last game with the Nats, Baker and Maddon, the certified genius, faced similar problems: starting pitchers who had to be hooked early. Maddon burned through his bullpen, using five relievers to get just eight outs. Then he prayed his closer, Wade Davis, could get more outs and throw more pitches than he had in any save in his life. Baker spaced out five pitchers from his bullpen to get 15 outs and had his closer, Doolittle, ready for normal duty: a scoreless ninth inning.
In the game that ended the Nats’ season and probably cost Baker his job, Baker may have won the biggest element in the managing battle. That’s irony.
Whenever I looked up some aspect of Baker’s overflowing life, his full name often caught my eye: Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker. I often thought, “Can’t we upgrade that B to a B-plus?”
Finding a manager better than Johnnie B-plus “Dusty” Baker probably can be done. But good luck trying.
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