LOS ANGELES — Dusty Baker wants to manage the Washington Nationals next season. He wants to win his 2,000th game as a manager and finally add a World Series title to a résumé that probably would earn him serious Hall of Fame consideration if he does.
“Why not? This is what I came here for,” said Baker, 67. “I didn’t come for two years. I came to win back-to-back titles.”
But Baker’s two-year contract expires after this season, and while many teams choose to extend managers they plan to retain before their deals expire, the Nationals have not done so.
Baker and the Nationals have not had formal contract talks about his future, though he says he has made clear his intentions to keep managing.
“I mentioned it to one of the primary people [in Nationals management]. And I mentioned it to [General Manager Mike Rizzo] one time,” Baker said. “That’s enough. They know.”
Baker led the Nationals to a 95-win season last season. This year, he has navigated them to a larger division lead than they had at any point last year. So why haven’t the Nationals given him an extension?
“Our priority is to focus on the team this season, and to win these games,” Rizzo said. “but we’re not going to mistake that for not making him a priority.”
One person familiar with Rizzo’s thinking said he hoped to get an extension done with Baker during spring training and “strongly recommended” to ownership that they extend Baker before his deal expires.
The Lerner family declined to answer questions about why they have not done so, instead issuing a statement through a team spokeswoman, as is their custom.
“We do not discuss management contracts,” the statement said. “That said — Dusty Baker is a real asset to our ball club. His work ethic and experience have earned him the respect of the clubhouse. We are fortunate to have him in our dugout.”
The Lerner family’s track record indicates an aversion to managerial extensions, one that so frustrated Jim Riggleman that he quit midseason. Even Davey Johnson managed from one one-year deal to the next.
Nationals ownership has never paid large salaries to its managers, something people close to the situation say rubbed now-Rockies Manager Bud Black the wrong way when he initially negotiated for the job that eventually ended up with Baker before the 2016 season.
The Nationals hired Baker instead, for what has been reported as a two-year deal worth $4 million. That deal is about half of what Baker made annually in Cincinnati, and less than half of what the Giants’ Bruce Bochy and the Cubs’ Joe Maddon will make this season.
“I remember talking to Frank Robinson when he was here. I remember his complaints to me. I remember Riggleman, which I would never do. I remember talking to Davey,” said Baker, indicating he knew what he was getting into when he signed with the Nationals.
“But I think I’ve earned more than I’m being paid.”
Baker took less than what he felt was market value when he initially came to Washington, grateful for a chance to get back in the game. But now that he has proven he can still manage successfully, the question of a raise likely will arise in any negotiations.
“The fact that there’s continuity between the front office and manager, and how he handles this franchise, is something we value greatly,” said Rizzo, who was not willing to say for sure that the Nationals will try to initiate extension talks with Baker before the end of this season.
While Baker does not shy away from questions about the matter, he has not gone out of his way to raise it publicly, so it has not had any effect inside the Nationals’ clubhouse. Ryan Zimmerman, for example, admitted he did not even know Baker was without a contract for next season.
“I don’t really know if I had ever even thought about it,” Zimmerman said.
“Those are ownership decisions,” Max Scherzer said. “We love him. We want him here.
“They [ownership] want to be patient, but I hope they don’t mess with this clubhouse.”
In many ways, that clubhouse is operating in the image of its manager. The Nationals are laid-back but competitive, confident but self-aware. They are neither consumed by one moment, nor lulled by the big picture.
Occasionally, players will grumble about a decision, but every player asked voiced support for Baker without hesitation. Occasionally, Rizzo and his manager disagree on in-game maneuvers or roster decisions, and discuss them afterward. But Rizzo is unequivocal and unfiltered in voicing his respect for Baker.
“He’s very important to the organization,” Rizzo said. “You don’t get an 1,800-win manager in your clubhouse every day. He’s still a terrific manager. Our relationship is great. We hope to continue that.”
When Baker was in the hiring process with the Nationals, two of his former Reds players, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, told him the Nationals were the perfect organization for him. A year and a half later, Baker now feels they were right.
“I enjoy the organization. I really enjoy the people of D.C.,” Baker said. “They’re closing in on San Francisco, which is one of my favorite towns and favorite places I’ve managed because of overall everything.”
In other words, the relationship between Baker and the Nationals remains strong. So does his health, which was a concern initially, given that he suffered a stroke during his tenure with the Reds and is one of the oldest managers in the game.
But Baker said he’s healthy, and has his family’s blessing to continue. His son, Darren, wants him to hunt for 2,000 wins. That number means something to Dusty, too. When he stopped playing after the 1986 season, he had accumulated 1,981 hits and 242 home runs. Baker, then 37, felt he could still hit — enough to play two, maybe three, more seasons, if anyone would have him.
But he stopped playing. Even now, as he sat in the visiting manager’s office at his old home park of Dodger Stadium this week, those numbers are still at the tip of his tongue. Even now, two decades and 1,803 wins into his managerial career, milestones he did not reach as a player spring to mind.
“I know if I had played, I would have been in the 300-something homers and 2,000-something hits,” Baker said. “. . . I don’t want to end up on 1,981 again.”
He knows one day he will feel it is time to go, but that day has not come yet. Having counted it out, he realized he probably needs not just one, but two more years to get there.
“Sometimes I’m in that dugout and I’m like, ‘Man, I sure enjoy this,’ ” Baker said. “. . . When I was sent away before, I wasn’t ready to go. I have a chance for the Hall, so I might as well do it in a Nationals uniform.”