MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

From a different dugout, Baker has Bruce's back

Nationals manager praises former player as a 'quality guy'

From a different dugout, Baker has Bruce's back

NEW YORK -- Though the two are no longer on the same team, the mutual admiration between Nationals manager Dusty Baker and Mets right fielder Jay Bruce is neverending.

The pair was together in the Cincinnati organization, during the most formative years of Bruce's All-Star career. And Bruce said on Saturday night before the Nats played the Mets at Citi Field that he'll never forget that period.

"Dusty was great," Bruce said. "He was great to me. He raised me in a lot of ways. I was very fortunate to have him as a manager and still feel very close to him today."

Baker was the manager of the Reds beginning in 2008 -- Bruce's rookie year -- until his dismissal at the end of the '13 postseason. After sitting out two seasons, he was hired to run the Nationals this past offseason.

Bruce remained in Cincinnati until the most recent non-waiver Trade Deadline when the left-handed slugger, who now has 28 homers and 88 RBIs, was traded to the Mets.

To Baker, having a legacy of relationships with players like Bruce is what managing in the big leagues is all about. It's almost like raising his own son, he said.

"I had a very good relationship with Jay. He's a quality guy," Baker said. "I like him and his family. When you see a guy and he's a good guy, you see him when he's a rookie. His very first day in the big leagues. You see him with his girlfriend and then they get married. And then next they have a child. You grow with them.

"Baseball is such a game that it goes much deeper than manager-player. If you care about your players, then it goes much deeper than what happens on a baseball field."

Baker has always cared about his players. He's the definition of a players' manager, one who cares as much about the individual as what he can contribute on the field. He's cut so much in that mold that when Bruce learned last offseason that Baker was a candidate for the Nats' job, he reached out to his friend and former manager.

"He's one of the guys who really recommended that I take this job here in Washington," Baker said. "Jay and Joey Votto, they both told me that this would be a good job for me. Jay called and said that I would be a perfect fit."

Baker loved the advice and support.

Bruce is still not sure why the Reds let Baker go. They had just finished the 2013 season at 90-72 and in third place in the National League Central behind the Cardinals and Pirates. Cincinnati then lost the NL Wild Card Game to Pittsburgh and nothing has been the same since.

Bruce was the latest veteran to go in a house-cleaning that has spared just Votto, Brandon Phillips and Homer Bailey from the team that played .524 ball and went to the playoffs three times during Baker's six-year tenure.

Because of all the sweeping changes that have occurred under the watch of manager Bryan Price, the Reds are 65 games under .500 since Baker left.

"We made the playoffs that year, and he was let go. I don't know the full story behind that," Bruce said. "It's not my area of expertise. I'm a ballplayer. I just try to keep my mouth shut and play ball. But like I said, Dusty was great to me."

The Mets travel to Cincinnati for a Labor Day game on Monday, and Bruce will return to Great American Ball Park for the first time since the trade.

Upon his departure, Bailey and Votto both questioned the deal in which the Reds acquired 22-year-old second baseman Dilson Herrera and 19-year-old pitcher Max Wotell.

Bailey said that unless Herrera turns out to be Robinson Cano, "the Mets got the better of us on that one."

Cincinnati was 9-4 right before the Aug. 1 trade, 14-15 since.

"I think it's kind of like you see the balloon getting bigger, and then, all of a sudden, you poke a hole in it," Bailey said.

Bruce said Saturday that all of those decisions are well above his pay grade.

"It has nothing to do with me now," he said. "I think that it's a tough situation over there, because there are a lot of veterans over there who want to win. But organizationally, they think they needed to rebuild and go in that direction. They think they know what they're doing. Again, it's not really my area of expertise."

It's not as if Bruce has been blazing along since he came to the Mets, either. In 28 games, he's batting .198 with 20 hits, including four doubles, three homers and eight RBIs.

Bruce was expected to give the Mets' offense support in the middle of the lineup. But only days after the trade, Yoenis Cespedes went on the disabled list with a calf injury and Bruce was unable to pick up the slack. He still hasn't.

But Baker has Bruce's back. He counseled that Mets fans should have patience.

"He's a great pickup," Baker said. "And I would say, 'Cut him some slack here. He's a good guy and he's trying as hard as he can, possibly too hard.'"

It's always nice to have the support of a dear friend.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.