It’s a shame the Washington Nationals couldn’t get a quality manager but instead had to settle for old, retread Dusty Baker, who wasn’t even their first choice.
(Baker has taken teams to the postseason seven times. Just eight managers since 1900 have done it more often.)
Since Baker ruins pitchers’ arms, doesn’t understand advanced analytics and flops in the playoffs, the Nats’ chances of improvement next season are poor.
(In the past 100 years among managers with 1,000 wins, Baker ranks 22nd in career winning percentage at .526. He has done it despite taking over three teams that were 72-90, 67-95 and 72-90, respectively, the year before he arrived.)
Too bad the Nats did not have a managing vacancy in a year when a gifted skipper was available. If only they could have gotten a “winner” such as Joe Maddon, Buck Showalter or Bruce Bochy. Or a Hall of Fame manager from the past like Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams or Casey Stengel.
(Baker’s percentage is higher than Maddon’s, at .525; Showalter’s, at .519; Bochy’s, at .503; and those of any of the others mentioned.)
How much can the 83-79 Nats improve with such a mediocre manager?
(If Baker matches his career percentage in the two years he’s signed to be Nats manager, he’ll be in the top 20 since 1900 in games above .500.)
The proof that Baker is a loser is that he has never managed a World Series champion, losing Game 7 in 2002, his best year.
(What do Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Davey Johnson, Billy Martin, Mike Scioscia and Lou Piniella have in common? They each won only one World Series.)
Okay, now let’s get serious.
Baker said Thursday at his first news conference as Washington’s new manager that he came back because the Nats “know that I had a burning desire to succeed in my heart that wasn’t filled in my life. You hate to have voids in your life. You can live without them, but I’d rather not.”
Is that void a world championship?
“Yeah, that’s the exact void I wanted to fill. I haven’t missed much in my life. I’ve been pretty fortunate,” Baker said. “The only thing left is a championship” as a manager.
One member of the Nats front office said: “Dusty only wanted a two-year contract. He wants to have one more shot to win the World Series and become the first African American elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager.”
Baker might not do it. The odds are against any one team or manager in such a short time span. But if he does, much of his current reputation will seem pretty silly.
Managing the Nationals to get that last page in the Hall of Fame résumé is becoming a tradition. That may have prompted the return of Davey Johnson, one of the few managers ever to match Baker’s breadth of interests, friends and amazing tales (most of them true). Davey didn’t get his wish. Maybe Baker won’t either.
But Thursday, Davey did text the Nats’ front office. “You’re going to have a ball with Dusty,” Johnson wrote. “He’s the real deal.’ ”
Baker’s first day as a Nat underlined his ability to command a room and do a saturation quote-bombing of the media. It’s easy to enjoy the Dusty riffs and dig no deeper.
“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.”
What gets obscured is Baker’s overall distinguished record, as noted above.
No, he’s probably not one of the great managers even if D.C. marks his apex. He has presided over too many season-ending flops for that. His Giants led a World Series three games to two. His Cubs led an NLCS three games to one. And his Reds led the 2012 division series two games to none with the last three games at Cincinnati. All three teams lost, finishing 0-8 in those potential clinching games.
Baker’s place in managerial history also suffers from an accident of timing. He was in the last generation of players who learned the game from staunch old-school managers. To them, pitch-limits for starters was a namby-pamby notion. New-fangled statistics were suspect. And if the sacrifice bunt and stolen base were good enough for Baker’s old manager Lasorda on three pennant-winning teams together in L.A., then why wouldn’t they be good enough for Dusty, too?
So Baker, like many others from that period, had to learn that those examples of received wisdom were probably bunk. It’s a painful education. But Baker evolved. You can’t prove he contributed to blowing out the arms of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in Chicago when he used them for an average of 122 and 126 pitches respectively in their last six starts in 2003. But by the time Baker got to Cincinnati his starters had a below-league-average number of pitches per start. Problem gone. By 2013, his Reds were 13th out of 30 teams in MLB in using defensive shifts. Does that sound like a locked-in ’70s-and-’80s dinosaur?
As an example of adaptation, Baker’s pitching coach will be Mike Maddux, much respected in his own right and the brother of the headiest pitcher ever, Greg. The Nats staff won’t be mishandled. And they may learn new tricks.
Baker may not provide everything the Nationals need. But he defines the two qualities they require most.
First, he is a good all-around manager, not just an adequate one; his record, built on fixer-uppers and maintained for 20 years, proves it. He’s no consolation prize.
Second, he’s a charismatic leader — funny, relaxed yet hard-nosed — who connects with people of every background or personality type.
“I talked to the great Bill Russell. I talked to Bill Walsh. They told me a team has to be close . . . 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,” Baker said. But “minds can move mountains . . . I believe in good, and I believe it’s going to be in our favor.”
The Nats better get ready for something entirely different. Cue the new clubhouse victory tape: “Lately things don’t seem the same. Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why. ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky.”
More on the Dusty Baker’s first day with the Nationals: