Correction: A previous version of this column said Dusty Baker advanced in the playoffs only once. His teams advanced twice. This version has been corrected.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Everybody knows Bruce Bochy is a genius manager because he has led the San Francisco Giants to three World Series championships in the past six years. Bochy might be in the Hall of Fame someday. However, before he managed the Giants, he spent a dozen years managing the San Diego Padres. At first, he had some success, even winning a pennant in 1998. But in his last eight years in San Diego, he had no magic, or more likely, he had few players and went 616-680. That will get you fired. So Bochy was.
It’s easy to mistake a manager for his record, especially if he runs a club with a small to medium budget, has few true stars and is constantly finding a way to make do in towns that big free agents won’t even visit. The Giants spotted the high-quality manager underneath the mediocre talent he handled and stole a jewel.
The man who followed Bochy into the Padres’ managing job was Bud Black. In his first eight seasons running the Padres, his record was 617-680. Do a double-take.
Somewhere, there was probably a rainout, or else Bochy might have had a chance to win one more game and prove he was the equal of the brilliant Black.
This past season, Black’s ninth in San Diego, where he was both respected and liked by players, he was given more talent than usual. Expectations rose. Yet in June, his record was just 32-33. So like Bochy long before him, he was fired, found guilty of . . . managing in San Diego. After Bud left, the Padres flopped to 42-54.
The Washington Nationals have decided to hire Black as their next manager for many reasons. No, not because he was a star southpaw for the 1985 Kansas City Royals, the franchise that won Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night and is now halfway to its first title since then.
The first reason is by far the most important: experience. The kind Bochy had when the Giants hired him, though his career record was under .500. The kind Joe Torre had when the Yankees hired him, though he had never been exceptional anywhere else. The kind Buck Showalter had when the Orioles hired him, though he had been fired three times for not taking his teams far enough.
There’s absolutely no evidence to prove that Black will become the Nats’ Bochy, Torre or Showalter. But in a season elimination game, he likely won’t turn to a rookie out of the bullpen like Aaron Barrett in 2014 when the Nats had Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen and even Stephen Strasburg available.
With hindsight, the Nats should have hired a Bud Black type — a proven, competent big league manager who wouldn’t mess up a pat hand — two years ago. Maybe that wouldn’t have been enough. Perhaps for the Nats to be where the Royals and Mets are now, they would have needed a Hall of Fame manager. But we will never know. Instead of a solid manager, the Nats went for great on a hunch.
General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has an exceptional record as a talent evaluator, system builder and trader, decided he also had the knack for picking the Next Great Manager (who had never managed). He trusted his gut, his friendship and his undisguised admiration for a man he imagined was the managerial model: Matt Williams. Instead, he hired an admirable statue.
Now the Nats know exactly what they are getting. They took no chances. Two years from now, we may say, “Bud Black’s career win percentage was .477. Wasn’t that a clue? Shouldn’t a team with Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and Strasburg on hand to make a run in 2016 have aimed higher, taken risk?”
But what were the choices? Dusty Baker might have been a better daily interview even than Davey Johnson. He was friends with Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Carlos Santana. He wrote a book — about “Rock, Baseball and Life.” In that order. In my book, Dusty can manage. However, in 20 years, he got to handle lots of talent, including 11 teams that had seasons with 88 to 100 wins. He coped with stars and prize rock heads, often in the same uniform. But he advanced in the playoffs only twice — although to a World Series. The worst knock on a manager is that he had the horses but couldn’t ride them all the way. Baker, at 66, couldn’t outrun that rep, plus a poor history with keeping pitchers healthy.
Cal Ripken Jr. threw his hat in the ring — or close to it anyway. But Rizzo, after his experience with the barely controllable big personality Davey, might have shied from even the slightest idea of being the boss of someone with Iron Man cred.
Ron Gardenhire didn’t quicken pulses. Don Mattingly, just fired by the Dodgers, may need an interval in managerial-reputation rehab before he gets another job. When you go nowhere with Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the top of your rotation, why would a team with Scherzer and Strasburg tap you?
As for anybody else without big league managerial experience, it wasn’t going to happen after the Lerners’ experience, both in results and stiff public persona, with Williams.
By process of elimination and solid but unspectacular credentials, that left Black. The first impression he will make on you is that he’s smart, poised and classy but unpretentious. He has the pride of a 121-game big league winner but the humility that goes with 118 losses. He has a southpaw’s quirky humor, handles pitchers well and builds deep bullpens that, in San Diego, favored big, intimidating hard throwers.
As important as any factor, Black will understand to the bone the true difficulty and ambiguity of managing in the majors. The admirable Williams frequently seemed to think that all decisions were cut-and-dried, that nothing was “gray” or even worthy of discussion. He had a line of reasoning, a managing book he had studied so he could get just such a job. End of story.
Black will come from the real world of managing experience where your stomach churns half the nights of the season because you know that almost every tough decision is complex: part traditional game strategy, part statistical analysis, part the psychology of your players and of the team as a whole, and part mystery.
What Black didn’t learn while calling his own shots, he picked up as Mike Scioscia’s pitching coach for many years with the Angels, including the 99-win World Series champion of 2002, when he and Scioscia got a ton out of a rotation that included Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn, Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele.
There is no certainty that the Nationals just hired an exceptional manager, though as the example of Bochy shows, it’s absolutely possible.
What they did do was hire a trained, experienced manager with nine years running his own ship and nine more years before that as a pitching coach, plus 17 years of experience as a big league pitcher.
Experience, experience, experience — did I mention that? That won’t erase the bitter disappointments of the past two seasons. But it’s a long winter. So perhaps settle for: better late than never.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.