Dusty Baker ambled into the Nationals Park room where a crowd awaited Thursday morning with a broad grin, 20 years of managerial experience and a lifetime of good humor. Wearing a gray pinstriped suit and multi-colored tie, he sat down in front of a microphone next to General Manager Mike Rizzo. The clicking of the dozen cameras documenting the new Washington Nationals manager’s introductory news conference was so loud Baker noticed.
“Man, I haven’t heard that in a long time,” he said. Many in the room smiled. Some laughed. And for the next 35 minutes, the 66-year-old’s magnetic personality made a memorable first impression in his new city. Despite a circuitous and strange managerial search in which the Nationals zeroed in on Bud Black before negotiations crumbled, Baker’s jokes, vision for his new team and his extensive résumé took center stage.
“A man with his impeccable résumé, the way he handles players, the success rate he’s had at other stops,” Rizzo said. “We’re looking for bigger and better things than we’ve ever had here in Washington, D.C.”
Of the known candidates for the job, Baker was the most accomplished: a three-time manager of the year, more than 1,600 wins, five division titles and a National League pennant. To him, the Nationals presented a chance — “the best talent” in his managerial career — to fill the one void in his life.
“The only things I’ve missed in my life: I signed out of high school, my parents got divorced, so I missed being the big man on a college campus, and I missed the love of grandparents because they both died before I was born,” he said. “The only thing left is a championship.”
The same qualities that impressed the Lerner family came across in Thursday’s news conference. Baker, the only African American manager in Major League Baseball, described Washington as a perfect fit. “I’ve always thought about possibly managing here,” he said. And that’s not just because of the diversity and culture but because he had family and friends here.
“I do know quite a few politicians — namely from the president down,” Baker said, one of the many names he dropped.
Baker even compared his managing style to music, which he adores. He had a reputation for pushing starting pitchers too hard, not believing much in on-base percentage and using sacrifice bunts often, but that is a little overblown. Rizzo touted Baker’s use of defensive shifts with the Cincinnati Reds in 2013.
“My friends call me the chameleon because they think I can adapt any place any time anywhere,” Baker said. “So I would like to think that I transcend different generations like some musicians. Stevie Wonder still sounds good. The Doors might sound even better. Certain things, I believe in old morals and ideas, but you translate them in modern ways so they can understand. I think it really helps me to have a daughter of 36, a wife of 50-something, and a son of 16.”
Baker’s hopes for getting the Nationals back into the playoffs, after a disappointing season that cost Matt Williams his job, relies on a philosophy he developed talking to Bill Russell and Bill Walsh. Both told him a team has to be close, from the janitor to the administrative assistants to the owners to the players. After a season that included a dugout fight between Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon, and fractured relationships between the clubhouse and manager’s office, Baker’s style could be needed.
“That’s why I think I can not only bring X’s and O’s but I can bring a closeness to a team,” said Baker, who has managed notoriously difficult personalities such as Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Sammy Sosa and others. “They said that love was the key, and I was really shocked when they told me that.
“You talk about love nowadays, you know, you’re talking crazy. The thing about it is I want to get this team together as soon as possible, from top to bottom.”
A week ago, Baker didn’t think he was going to land the Nationals job. He had resigned himself to another disappointment after hearing reports that Black was the Nationals’ choice. But Baker said he received a call from Ted Lerner, the 90-year-old managing principal owner of the Nationals, and was told he hadn’t been ruled out.
The past two years away from managing strengthened Baker. His health improved after a mini-stroke in 2012. After 20 years managing the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Reds, Baker considers the Nationals his final managerial job. He becomes the second-oldest manager in baseball, a few weeks younger than Terry Collins of the New York Mets.
“I don’t think of myself as 66 years old,” Baker said. “I don’t know how old I am sometimes. It really doesn’t matter, because the way I look at it, not sounding cocky or nothing, but I don’t see a whole lot of dudes out there that look better than me now.”
Even putting on his red Nationals hat and white No. 12 jersey, Baker had jokes. “My son wants me to wear the flat bill but I can’t do that,” he said, bending the bill. With Rizzo’s help, Baker slipped on the jersey. His back to the cameras, Baker threw his fists up in the air in a victory pose.
“My mom used to be a model,” Baker said, putting one hand in his pocket and pirouetting twice on the stage. “She used to go like this.” He then hugged Rizzo and waved to the crowd again.
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