Late Thursday morning at Nationals Park, Johnnie B. Baker, better known as “Dusty,” will be introduced as the sixth manager in Washington Nationals history. Team officials will trumpet his long résumé, which includes 1,671 wins, five division titles, playoff appearances with each of the three teams he has led and a trip to the 2002 World Series.
Based on his skill set, personality and accomplishments, Baker is a deserving choice to lead the Nationals, who failed to make the playoffs after a tumultuous and disappointing season that opened with World Series expectations. But how the Nationals arrived at Baker — and not Bud Black, the man they initially settled on last week as their manager — is a strange and twisted tale.
It started last week, when the Nationals and Black opened contract talks. By the weekend, those talks had broken down, and the Nationals circled back to Baker, 66, who inked a multiyear deal and was announced as the team’s new manager Tuesday morning.
“We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” Managing Principal Owner Theodore N. Lerner said in a statement. “During our broad search process we met with many qualified candidates, and ultimately it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”
Baker, who is African American, joins the Atlanta Braves’ Fredi Gonzalez, who is Latino, as the only minority managers in baseball. With Baker’s hiring, Major League Baseball avoided the first season since 1987 without an African American manager.
“I am certain that the Nationals, like all of our clubs, hired the best person for the job,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an e-mail. “It is encouraging that in this case the best person turned out to be African American. This is a positive step and I am intent on making continued progress on diversity in the managerial ranks going forward. Dusty Baker is highly qualified, has years of managerial experience and is a proven leader.”
Baker, a former all-star outfielder, owns a .526 winning percentage over 20 years as a major league skipper. He has reached the playoffs seven times with three teams — the Giants, Cubs and Reds. A three-time National League manager of the year, he guided the Giants to the 2002 World Series, where they lost in seven games to the Angels.
The Nationals — who have been reluctant to pay top dollar for managers in the past under the Lerner family — appeared to have found their man last week in Black, a respected manager who had 81/2 seasons of managerial experience under his belt but no playoff appearances.
He accepted their job offer, but the terms of the contract had to be ironed out.
The team’s first offer was for $1.6 million for one season, according to one person familiar with the deal. Black was “deeply offended” and the talks didn’t proceed well from there, according to another person familiar with the situation. One source familiar with the negotiations said the Nationals’ top offer to Black was a guaranteed three-year deal with an average salary that would have been in the top half of major league managers.
As a point of comparison, Don Mattingly signed a four-year deal with the Miami Marlins on Monday after five years managing the Dodgers. Even the Detroit Tigers gave first-time manager Brad Ausmus three guaranteed years. But the Nationals’ standard practice has been two years and team options.
By Sunday night, negotiations with Black had collapsed. By Monday, the Nationals were deep into negotiations with Baker.
Despite his level of experience, Baker’s deal is for two years, worth less than $4 million, and has incentives tied to the playoffs, according to USA Today.
“I am so pleased to welcome Dusty Baker to the Nationals family,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said in a statement. “In getting to know Dusty and identifying what we wanted in the next on-field leader of our team, we are excited to have him on board.”
Following a 10-year run with the Giants, Baker left and won a division title with the Cubs in 2003, famously falling one foul ball and a win short of returning to the World Series. Baker’s contract wasn’t renewed after four seasons and he managed the Reds for six years, beginning in 2008.
With Cincinnati, he won two divisions and reached the playoffs a third time. At each stop, Baker oversaw an immediate turnaround.
Baker was fired after the Reds were swept out of the 2013 playoffs. Later that offseason, he asked his agent to contact Rizzo about Washington’s managerial vacancy, but Rizzo had already targeted Matt Williams, with whom he had a close relationship. Williams, a first-time manager, was fired last month after two seasons and one playoff appearance.
Baker has drawn criticism for overusing starting pitchers and an overreliance on tactics such as sacrifice bunts. But wherever he has been, he has won, and he has handled star players with big personalities well, from Barry Bonds to Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent and Brandon Phillips. Baker is known for his ability to lead, discipline and connect with players.
“Washington picked the perfect person for the team,” said pitcher Livan Hernandez, who played for the Nationals and under Baker in San Francisco for four years.
“As a person and manager, he’s very, very, very good. That team needs someone that has experience in baseball, experience in the playoffs.”
During this managerial search, the Nationals cast a wide net and admitted that previous experience would be a priority. The choice came down to Black, who was liked by some in the front office, and Baker, who impressed the Lerner family so much last month that the Nationals asked him to return Washington early last week for a second interview. So did Black, who played under Baker in San Francisco in 1993 and 1994.
Baker inherits a team that, with a few tweaks, has the talent in place to be a division contender in 2016 thanks to Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg.
“Dusty has a great relationship with the players,” said Roger Craig, a former Giants manager under whom Baker worked.
“He knows how to have a good conversation with everybody. He’s loose and free. He’s very good at getting the players to relax and things like that. He can make them laugh. He’s a good teacher.”
Thomas Boswell and Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.