A week before he was introduced as the Washington Nationals’ new manager, pirouetting in a gleaming white No. 12 jersey, Dusty Baker was at a wellness center in the mountains of Northern California, wondering what went wrong.
Authors bunker themselves there to escape, to pull novels out of the quiet. Baker, who was touring in Santa Cruz for his own recently published book, “Kiss the Sky,” sat there disappointed over a job he thought he didn’t get — not knowing a plot twist was coming that would make him the sixth manager of the Nationals.
Baker had had a second interview, but all indications were that the club had settled on Bud Black instead. So Baker sat idle with the author of his book, “bewildered,” he said, because no one told him he was out of contention.
“Now you know why,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, interrupting his new manager. According to Rizzo, Baker had never been out of contention. The Lerners called Baker to tell him as much. By Tuesday, Baker had the job.
People familiar with the situation confirmed the Nationals had settled on Black by the evening of Oct. 28. The Post, as well as many other media outlets, reported that the Nationals intended to hire Black, but that no deal was done yet. Rizzo said repeatedly Thursday the team never ruled out Baker, and that assistant general manager Bob Miller, who knew Baker from his time in Cincinnati, was in constant contact with him.
“It was an extremely unique situation, where we came down to the wire with two extremely qualified candidates we really thought could impact the ballclub,” Rizzo said. “But when things get leaked out, and the media runs with it, there’s not a whole lot that we can do about it, other than call each and every one that reported it and say, ‘I would hold off and not say that,’ there’s not a lot we can do.”
Rizzo and other team officials did not return repeated attempts for confirmation throughout the process. According to a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations, the team’s opening offer to Black was a one-year deal with an option for a second and a buyout that pushed the value of the deal to $2.45 million — an offer that offended Black, 58, according to people close to him. Black countered with a two-year proposal with an option for a third. The Nationals came back with an offer of three years guaranteed, at what the team believed to be market value, more than what Black made in San Diego. Black turned that down.
“Bud Black was one of the finalists,” Rizzo said. “We definitely had financial parameters discussed with him and Dusty, at the same time. At the end of the day, we decided to make Dusty our manager.”
Black did not return a message requesting comment Thursday.
If negotiating with two people for the same job seems like an unorthodox strategy, it is. Rizzo admitted as much.
“We had a unique situation,” Rizzo said. “We uniquely had two extremely qualified candidates, and we felt that was the best track to go by, because sometimes the negotiating process also tells you a lot about the people that you’re negotiating with.”
Rizzo acknowledged the Lerner family was intimately involved in the decision, noting the ownership board always is involved “when we make these big decisions.” The Lerners, who have been available to comment after other news conferences, left the room Thursday immediately after Baker’s final answer.
According to people with direct knowledge of the negotiations, the decision to hire Baker came after Ted Lerner spoke to the 66-year-old veteran and decided he was more comfortable with Baker. Because the Nationals say they were negotiating with both candidates simultaneously, it’s not clear when that conversation took place relative to other events in the process.
In the end, Baker and the Nationals agreed to a two-year deal, an unexpected twist in a managerial search that found its official conclusion Thursday morning. A few days after Baker sat a continent away, out of sight and seemingly out of contention, “resigned to deal with another disappointment,” he sat at Nationals Park with cameras clicking — a big league manager for what he said was the “fourth and final” time.
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.
More on the Dusty Baker’s first day with the Nationals: