BERKELEY, Calif. — Early Friday evening, a few hours after the Washington Nationals opened their season in Cincinnati, their former manager Dusty Baker arrived at another stadium 2,300 miles away, where the hits make a metallic “ping” sound, where admission costs $13 but Baker qualifies for the $5 senior discount, and where the freshman second baseman for the University of California bears an uncanny, familial resemblance to a young Dusty.
Baker unfolded a hard-backed, cushioned stadium seat on the concrete stands and set up camp, surrounded by a handful of old friends and a bag of peanuts, in the back row of Evans Diamond. Did he catch the Nationals’ opener, he was asked?
“No, did they win? I saw they were up 1-0.”
Actually, it ended up 2-0. Max Scherzer went six innings, struck out 10.
“Yeah,” Baker nodded. “I’m going to miss that dude.”
It was the closest Baker, 68, would come during a half-hour interview to a hint of wistfulness or regret. Let go by the Nationals in October, following a second straight National League East title and a second straight first-round playoff exit, he went through the full gamut of emotions in the days and weeks that followed: shock, anger, resentment — and even sadness, as he realized his last, best chance at a World Series title had probably passed him by.
But now, as he prepared to watch his son, Darren, a freshman at Cal, play another game — a privilege he rarely received when Darren was younger and Baker was managing — he appeared to have arrived at something resembling peace. But Dusty being Dusty, it is a grudging, hard-edge form of peace.
“You got no choice” but to make peace with it, Baker said. “Do you ever make peace with it? I’ve been through [being fired] a couple of times. You can make peace with it, but it makes you kind of lose some faith in mankind.”
Until Friday, he had not spoken much publicly about his split from the Nationals, which came eight days after a crushing loss to the Chicago Cubs in Game 5 of the NL Division Series. For months, he rebuffed all interview requests, leaning on advice he received from friends such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bill Cosby and Tony Dungy, who told him — “To a man,” Baker said — not to speak out until the anger subsided.
It has taken this long, apparently. Last week, the San Francisco Giants, the team Baker managed to two division titles and the 2002 NL pennant, named him a special adviser to CEO Larry Baer — a full-circle move that brings him back to the first franchise he managed and also creates a neat triangle for Baker to navigate between his home outside Sacramento, Darren’s games in Berkeley and his new job in San Francisco.
“Sometimes you don’t like it, but they do you a favor,” Baker said of his winter of transition. “My [solar-energy] business was suffering while I was gone — now my business is starting to boom. I’ve got some good things going. I haven’t been home to see the hills green in Sacramento in a long time. The hills were always brown when I come home. It’s cool. It’s real cool.”
Last October, when the hills were still brown, Baker had just gotten home following the playoff loss when he received the fateful phone call from Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo. There was no explanation given, Baker said, just a standard line about the team “going in another direction.”
“He sounded like it was one of the hardest things he had to do,” Baker said of Rizzo. “So I didn’t ask for an explanation. What good is an explanation at that time?”
The tone in Rizzo’s voice led Baker to suspect the move was not the GM’s call, but that the decision had been made by the Lerner family that owns the Nationals — a theory others have espoused. He said the only time he heard from ownership was when a note arrived in the mail from managing principal owner Ted Lerner thanking him for his two years of service to the franchise. Asked if the note said anything else, Baker says, “I don’t remember.”
But Baker also recalled a conversation that occurred when he was interviewing for the job in the fall of 2015 that made his departure last fall seem less shocking. According to Baker, the Nationals presented him with a scenario in which he would groom a bench coach to be his successor after two seasons. The team offered some suggested candidates: Andy Green, Tim Wallach, Phil Nevin. Baker, he recalled hearing, “would teach [the coach] everything I know, and after two years they would take over.”
Baker instead fought for his longtime right-hand man Chris Speier to be his bench coach, but after Baker was let go as manager two years later, Speier didn’t even get an interview for the job. Following a thorough search, the managing job instead went to Dave Martinez, a longtime lieutenant to Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay and Chicago.
The transition from Baker to Martinez, 53, was part of an industry trend that saw five prominent teams — the Nationals, Phillies, Mets, Red Sox and Yankees — replace their veteran managers over the winter with men who are an average of 18 years younger and, in most cases, were more welcoming of the analytics wave that has taken over the game. It was a shift that did not escape Baker’s attention.
“You realize in the world, especially this new world — there’s always been racist discrimination, but it seems like in this new world, there’s age and salary discrimination, which go hand in hand,” he said. “And also, there’s intellectual discrimination, because now you’re judged on your intellect based on which college you went to.”
As hard as it was to have the reins of a title contender taken away from him — the Nationals won 192 regular season games in his two years and are considered overwhelming favorites to win the NL East again this year — the further shame of it, Baker said, was that he had fallen in love with Washington during his time there, to the point where it became a close second to his beloved San Francisco on his list of favorite cities.
“The education level, the mind-set, the diversity,” he says. “That was the first time I found myself eavesdropping on other people’s conversations because I couldn’t believe how many different ethnic groups there were. They would look white and talk German, or look black and talk French. I liked that atmosphere. I liked the town — a lot.”
Baker also took an immediate liking to Washington’s best player, right fielder Bryce Harper, calling him a “heavy young man” and recalling many “deep” conversations between the two of them. He said he has no idea what Harper, a pending free agent, will do at the end of this season, but praised him as “probably the most knowledgeable baseball guy I’ve been around.”
“I’d mention a name and he would know him. It wasn’t, ‘Who’s that?’ ” Baker said. “I’ve had a thousand of those conversations. ‘You remind me of so-and-so.’ ‘Who’s that?’ But not [Harper]. He’s got a lot going for him. Just stay healthy. That’s all.”
Unless he lands another managing job, the last of his 3,554 games as a manager, regular and postseason combined, will be the fateful Game 5 against the Cubs — the latest in a series of crushing playoff defeats that in part has defined Baker’s managerial career, from Game 6 of the 2002 World Series with the Giants to the 2003 “Steve Bartman” game in Chicago to Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS, when the Nationals held a 1-0 lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers entering the seventh inning but lost, 4-3.
The 9-8 loss to the Cubs in Game 5 some six months ago stands, Baker said, as “the craziest game I’ve ever seen.” It featured a pivotal passed ball, an equally pivotal catcher’s interference call and a pair of complex umpiring calls that both went against the Nationals. It featured Scherzer taking the loss in relief.
Asked if he has spent any time thinking about Game 5 in the months since, Baker said no, then added, “Was that my fault, too?” When it was suggested he might still have his job if one of those fluky bounces or calls went his way, he brought up the two-year time frame the Nationals presented at his job interview again, and said he’s not so sure.
This spring, Baker has been a regular at Cal’s home games, watching Darren, a wiry, 5-foot-11, 153-pound prospect, with intense focus. Baker’s wife, Melissa, typically accompanies him to the games, but Baker makes sure not to sit with her because “she talks too much.” When someone approached Baker minutes before Friday’s game asking to get a picture with him, he consented, “As long as you’re not gonna be standing there when the game starts.”
“It’s weird how it kind of worked out for the better,” said Darren Baker, 19. “I think he’s happy, and I’m happy he’s here. He’s never really seen me play consistently. For my first year in college to be his first time to see me play regularly is pretty special. . . . I don’t think anything is fair in general — in sports or life. But how he raised me is: Things happen for a reason. You can’t hold on to it anymore.”
If this is the end of Baker’s managerial career, he goes out with 1,863 regular season wins, 14th all-time. Of the 13 men ahead of him, all but one, Gene Mauch, are in the Hall of Fame. For some time, it was widely assumed Baker was one World Series title away from gaining entry to Cooperstown. And if that title remains missing from his résumé, as it now appears will happen, would it make him something less than a Hall of Famer?
“You don’t judge yourself. I’ll let other people do that,” he said. “Ain’t nobody ever given me nothing in the first place. So if [the Hall of Fame] happens, fine. If it don’t happen, hey, what can I do? I did my best with what I had. I’m at the point: I really don’t care what you say. . . . Why should I let other people control my self-esteem? My dad taught me you don’t have anybody to satisfy but God, family and yourself. They’re the only entities you can’t fool if you’re an honest guy.
“So I tell my son that. People gonna always say what you can’t do. People been telling me what I can’t do my whole life. And guess what? Fifty years later, they still telling me. And I. Don’t. Give. A. [Expletive].”
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