New manager takes over talented club after 20 years of experience as skipper
By Richard Justice
All that matters is that the Washington Nationals ended up with a manager who is one of baseball's most respected, decent and accomplished men of the past half century. In terms of stature, credibility and experience, Dusty Baker takes a back seat to no one. In the end, everything else is just noise.
Now, about Bud Black. Sometimes, we might be better off not knowing how the sausage is made. The Nats narrowed their decision to Black or Baker. There was no wrong answer.
In fact, both men have some similar strengths. That is, the ability to communicate with players and to get a cohesive and consistent effort. We love to debate in-game strategy, but those things are a matter of percentages.
If a manager can't get his guys to play hard and to understand that every decision he makes is what he believes is best for the entire club, that other stuff is irrelevant. Managers fail when their players stop believing in them. Black and Baker are both very good at this part of the game.
Last week, I wrote a column extolling the virtues of the Nationals hiring Black. They were headed in that direction until negotiations broke down. We might agree to disagree on the relative value of a proven manager, especially Bud Black, but the Nats had a fallback position.
Black now becomes the top candidate for virtually every job opening in baseball. All the strengths he would have brought to the Nationals will be attractive to franchises seeking anything from a front-office executive to a manager to a pitching coach. Black will make some organization better the moment he walks through the door.
Dusty Baker is not a consolation prize. He has been around too long and accomplished too much to be considered that. Baker's life in baseball has been an extraordinary journey.
Baker played his first big league game in 1968. He was 19 years old. During those first eight seasons with the Braves, he had a teammate named Hank Aaron. Years later, Baker would offer perhaps the most perfect assessment of Aaron's career.
"The worst thing Henry ever did was hit 755 home runs," Baker said. "Those home runs overshadowed that he was a better pure hitter and defensive player and baserunner than anyone else."
Baker, 66, learned some tough life lessons in those years. He saw the hate mail Aaron received as he pursued Babe Ruth's all-time home run record in 1974. Baker knew that black players occasionally were afraid to be near Aaron in the dugout in case a shot was fired.
So, listen up, Bryce Harper. You, too, Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman. This new guy played in 2,039 games and has managed 3,176 -- 10 years with the Giants, four with the Cubs, six with the Reds. So there's nothing you will throw at him that he hasn't already seen.
Good ol Dusty..Welcome to DC skip! Let's make some history #DCorNothing
For instance, Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. You may have heard that they weren't best friends during their time with the Giants. What you may not have heard is that San Francisco had other large egos -- difficult personalities -- in the clubhouse.
Somehow, Baker made it work. Maybe one of the few things Kent and Bonds would agree upon is that they both loved and respected Dusty and were willing to bust their tail for the guy.
Giants fans had issues with Baker's bullpen management and stuff like that. Are you kidding? Baker made the clubhouse environment productive, and if he hadn't done that, none of the other stuff would have mattered.
San Francisco went to the postseason three times in Baker's last six seasons and won the National League pennant in 2002. Baker succeeded by smiling and communicating. He did it by being honest, by drawing lines about what he would and wouldn't accept.
No player wanted to cross Baker. First, they liked him and trusted him. Second, they knew that all those years in the game had helped Baker develop a thick skin.
The Nationals had a rookie manager in Matt Williams in 2014, and they won the NL East. In '15, they were hit hard by injuries and by disappointing performances. Somewhere along the way, Williams appears to have lost the players, in part, because there seemed to be a wall between the manager and the clubhouse.
There will be no such thing with Baker. He will make sure every player knows where he stands. Baker will be brutally honest. Having been away for two seasons, having not known if he'd get another shot, Baker will be energized by this opportunity.
Baker will be thrilled by the chance to manage Harper and to help young guys like Michael Taylor and Trea Turner established themselves. He'll have one of the best rotations he has ever managed, and when Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo is done with his offseason work, Baker will have a competitive bullpen, too.
Jobs like this one don't open up very often. Washington could be NL East favorites by Opening Day depending on how the offseason goes. That the Nats went looking for a manager at a time when two good ones were available may end up being the best break this franchise has had in a while.
The Nationals think they have a good man and a competent manager. They may find that Baker is even better than they think. He has been to the postseason seven times in his 20-season managerial career. It's a safe bet there's more to come.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.