The next manager of the Washington Nationals will — officially now — be Dusty Baker. Taken out of context, the hiring is uncomplicated, logical and defensible: A team desperate for a manager with experience and credibility hired a baseball man with four decades in the professional game, two as a manager.
But context complicates the hire, because it was shaped by more than baseball logic. Fitting, because despite 40-plus years in the grind, Baker has crafted as eclectic an on-field and off-field existence as one could imagine. There is more to him than baseball, too.
The sixth full-time manager of the Nationals is publishing a book, “Kiss the Sky,” about a rock concert he went to at age 18 that he says changed his life. A quick Google search for Baker reveals he once, allegedly, smoked a joint with Jimi Hendrix. He knows Buddy Guy, Elvin Bishop and Carlos Santana, and they know him. He invests in a renewable energy firm, Baker Energy Team, Solar and Wind. He is a partner in a vineyard, Baker Family Wines, in Northern California. Baker slides through all kinds of company, baseball or not, young and old, and clicks into place.
“He’s really been around, seen a lot, dealt with a lot of people and has that skill set,” Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce said. “He’s kind of a chameleon. Doesn’t matter where you come from, who you are, what your background is, Dusty always seems to have a way to relate.”
Baker hit .278 over 19 seasons as a major league outfielder. He won the Silver Slugger Award twice and was an all-star twice, too, for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Tommy Lasorda managed him there, and saw — well, heard — the makings of a manager.
“He was always asking me questions,” Lasorda said. “Why did you do this? Why did you do that? He was learning while he was playing.”
Lasorda remembers the final day of the 1977 season, when Baker had 29 homers entering what was likely to be his last at-bat. Three of his teammates already had 30, and Baker was facing J.R. Richard, who “could throw the ball as hard as anybody,” Lasorda said.
“I said ‘Dusty, you hit a home run, you go in the record books. If you don’t, we’re nothing,’” Lasorda said. “By golly he hit a home run,” and the Dodgers became the first team to have four players hit 30 home runs.
When Baker headed back to the dugout after the milestone shot, teammate Glenn Burke held up his hand. Baker hit Burke’s hand with his, not knowing what else to do. In that moment, legend has it, the high-five was born.
So to understand the Nationals’ next manager, one must look at numbers — such as the fact that a three-time National League manager of the year won division titles with three teams, and led the San Francisco Giants to the 2002 World Series. But one must also look beyond it, to eccentricities such as the high-five, or the toothpick he chews in seeming perpetuity, “a good source of protein,” as he explained it once.
“Bake” is known around the game as a quintessential players’ manager, the kind of guy who created so much comfort you’d forget he was your manager sometimes, said Nationals color commentator F.P. Santangelo, who played for Baker in San Francisco.
He remembers Baker instilling confidence in his bench as well as his stars, organized and communicative, carrying a piece of paper to the back of the team plane at the start of a road trip to tell bench players they’d be starting the second game in Philadelphia and the third game in New York, if all went to plan.
But Baker is as old-school as he is organized. In an age of analytics, when young managers could on occasion be mistaken for robots, spitting out sums aimed at maximizing production, one concern is the lack of new-school malleability on his lengthy résumé.
“I think Dusty transcends eras in a lot of ways,” said Bruce, who said Baker raised him in baseball, and that “old-school” isn’t always a negative. “He’s a guy that’s going to progress the way he needs to.”
In San Francisco, Chicago, and Cincinnati, the media wondered about his ability to manage a bullpen, and a reputation for pushing young arms too far bubbled up as young stars such as Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and others succumbed to injuries some credited to high pitch counts. Baker manages mostly on feel, far from the regimented approach taken by predecessor Matt Williams, though no less prone to criticism.
“You’ll always be second-guessed, but I thought Dusty always handled it with class because he understands that,” Reds reliever Sam LeCure said. “But he also has conviction in what he’s doing. He believes in what he’s doing. So you do, too.”
Black, a former pitcher, was known for his ability to manage a pitching staff. The Nationals, particularly careful with their young pitchers, are choosing a man who some think misuses them. Former Nationals starter Livan Hernandez, who pitched for Baker in San Francisco, is not one of those who question him.
“There were no injuries,” he said. “They’re babysitting too much in the big leagues now. If you reach the major leagues, and go through the minor leagues, you have to be ready. Here you get paid to pitch not to be babysat.”
In Washington, Baker will be getting paid to win, to coagulate a disappointed clubhouse losing several key figures, to rejuvenate a contender. Livan Hernandez called Baker the “perfect person for the team.”
“That team needs someone that has experience in baseball, experience in the playoffs, experience as manager, experience on winning teams,” said Hernandez, in some ways echoing Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo’s sentiments from the outset of the search.
After Williams failed to win, the Nationals wanted experience. They chose Dusty Baker. On the field and off, inside baseball and outside of it, few people have experienced more.