Nationals Manager Dusty Baker talks with reporters at baseball's winter meeting. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Columnist

In baseball, few attributes are as hard to acquire — or as essential to defend — as a good reputation. Right now, the Washington Nationals and their new manager, Dusty Baker, must battle to maintain theirs.

This year has been a nightmare for the Nats. In January, Jayson Werth went to jail. In September, Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper in the dugout. Could it get worse? Oh, yes.

On Tuesday, Baker talked about domestic violence in tone-deaf and disturbingly backward ways that call his judgment into question — not his personal ethics, but his ability as the team’s most public face to represent the team wisely in a way appropriate to the times.

After loose-cannon remarks at the winter meetings in which Baker also needlessly dragged up ancient racial stereotypes and handled them ham-handedly, the Nats may wonder if they’ve added a problem, rather than discovered a solution. Maybe Matt Williams’s non-speak wasn’t all bad.

The Nationals chose Bud Black to be their manager, but contract talks broke down over the weekend, leading to the hiring of Dusty Baker, the other finalist, to replace fired Matt Williams. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

This week, a police report surfaced stating that Cincinnati reliever Aroldis Chapman had fired eight shots inside his garage while his girlfriend (the mother of his child) hid in bushes outside the house. Media also reported that the woman told police Chapman choked her. Chapman was not arrested, and criminal charges were neither pressed nor filed.

The reports were the buzz at the meetings in Nashville. Even in the absence of charges, MLB launched an investigation. Baker, who managed Chapman for four years, was asked for his thoughts, especially because the Nats have shown interest in trading for Chapman in the past.

With only a second-hand account of the Chapman issue, which he said he heard from his son, Baker defended Chapman as “a heck of a guy” and “a tremendous young man with a great family, great mother and father” and said, “I’ll go on record and say I wouldn’t mind having Chapman. . . . I got nothing but love for the young man.”

So many things are wrong with this. First, Baker shot from the lip with no grasp of the facts. He was far behind the curve in an era when being up to information-age speed is essential. Instantly, he staked out the position, standard for generations, that he’d managed this star for years and might help grease a trade to get him again.

But this isn’t generations ago. Any Chapman trade will be dead for months. Dusty didn’t get it. Sports has been aflame with long-overdue attention to domestic-violence issues since the public saw film of Ray Rice punching his fiancee unconscious two years ago. Since then there has been a nauseating succession of similar examples.

Sometimes awful behavior by sports stars can bring invaluable attention to larger social issues. The Rice case — and the cynical mishandling of it, which almost brought down the NFL commissioner — presumably focused the scrutiny of everyone in sports upon the issue.

Except Baker?

In a country that can find a way to divide itself on almost any issue along partisan political lines, domestic abuse is one of the few serious national problems on which almost everyone agrees.

Baker acknowledged that in his clarification. “There is no way that I would ever condone domestic violence,” he said during an MLB Network Radio appearance. “No way. . . . We gotta stop it, big time. I’m hoping that [Chapman] is innocent.”

But even there the tone is off: Justice is the issue, not rooting for his guy.

In his initial comments, Baker may not have known the facts about Chapman, but he knew the question was about domestic violence. Parts of his answer, which few have focused on, were chilling.

Asked about the increased attention to domestic violence, Baker replied, “I think it’s a great thing,” saying his mother had given that strong message to him as a child. Then he veered.

“I mean, I got a buddy at home that’s being abused by his wife,” Baker said. “So I think this policy needs to go further than the player. I think the policy should go to whoever’s involved.

“Sometimes abusers don’t always have pants on.”

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline in 2013, 87 percent of calls were from women or girls. By focusing on the 13 percent, Baker leaves open to question how seriously he takes the much bigger group.

Perhaps Baker is a bit delirious with joy at returning to the game as a manager. At his first news conference in Washington, he charmed many with non-stop stories and quips. It was an “I’m-back” star turn.

But he didn’t just put a foot in his mouth Tuesday. He inserted both of ’em.

“Who’s to say the allegations are true, number one?” Baker said. “And who’s to say what you would have done or what caused the problem?”

Yes, that will make blame-the-victim bells go off. A manager or coach in pro sports needs to understand the whole culture of which his team is a part. Baker has always been attuned to issue of race in baseball — to buzzwords and catchphrases that tip off someone’s true beliefs. Now he should look hard at his own words. To speak judiciously on serious subjects, or else stay silent, is a core managerial competence. Smoking-a-joint-with-Jimi Hendrix stories are amusing, but optional.

Unfortunately, Baker didn’t limit himself Tuesday. For no reason, he tossed himself into another age-old controversy.

“The number-one thing that’s missing in the game is speed,” he said. “With the number of minorities, you can help yourself — you’ve got a better chance of getting some speed with Latin- and African-Americans. I’m not being racist. That’s just how it is.”

Here’s how it really is: Don’t put a “Kick Me” sign on yourself. Baker’s blundering on Chapman now can’t be called a one-off accident.

The day Baker was introduced as manager, he said, “I’d like to think I transcend different generations, like some musicians. I mean, Stevie Wonder still sounds good. And The Doors might sound even better.”

After Tuesday, transcending generations isn’t his issue. Baker, all on his own, now has raised the issue of whether he’s sufficiently in touch with this generation.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.