In guiding Nationals, motivated manager deserves end-of-season recognition
By Hal Bodley
Dusty Baker sat in the visiting dugout on March 2 at Charlotte Sports Park and tried to explain why he was returning to the pressure of managing a Major League baseball team -- this time, the Washington Nationals.
With a sparkle and determination in his eyes, there was no hesitation.
"To win a championship," Baker said. "Period."
Not a division title. Not to play in the World Series. Johnnie B. Baker Jr. has been there, done that. He wants it all -- the ring, the true title.
Baker is 67 now, and nearly 200 days have passed since he began his difficult quest under a hot Florida sun for the one goal that has eluded him during a brilliant managerial career.
Any day now, Baker's Nationals will wrap up the National League East and set the stage for his objective. It won't be easy, but so far so good.
Because Baker has been so adroit at keeping the multitalented Nats focused at winning this season, he should add another NL Manager of the Year Award to the three he already has collected.
Historically, the honor goes to the skipper whose team defies expectations.
Example: Many of the years when Joe Torre did a marvelous job of winning with the Yankees, he was bypassed because they had the highest payroll of all the teams and were expected to win.
The same is true this year for the Cubs' Joe Maddon. Even before the first pitch, the Cubs were supposed to win because they were considered the best team in baseball.
Baker should win the NL Manager of the Year Award because he has been able to unite a clubhouse and overcome numerous obstacles during the year.
Before the 2015 season opened, there were those who predicted the Nationals would be in the World Series. Then there was strife in the clubhouse and they won just 83 games, and when the dust settled, the Mets had won the NL East. Matt Williams, who won NL managerial honors in 2014, was dismissed.
Baker was the perfect choice to bring the many talented pieces together. With 16 games to go, the Nats should win at least 96, a 13-game improvement over 2015.
After being let go by the Cincinnati Reds in 2013, Baker was out of uniform for two seasons, and he wondered if he'd get another chance. Even more important to him is the fact he's the most successful African-American skipper in Major League Baseball history.
"I know I belong here," Baker said that March day in Spring Training. "I was trying not to miss it, but deep down I did. I truly did miss it.
"Yes, I missed the game, but life goes on. I'm closer to death than I am to birth. So therefore you have to live your life, which is what I tried to do."
That Baker could adapt so well to the rapidly changing baseball is another reason why he should add another NL Manager of the Year Award to those he won in 1993, '97 and 2000. During his previous 20 years as a manager, he's produced seven postseason teams, but he has gone to the World Series just once. Baker's Giants lost to the Angels in 2002 in seven games.
Baker should win, but it would be unfair to not recognize the job done by the Dodgers' Dave Roberts or the Mets' Terry Collins. Both teams have been hit hard by injuries. Yet the Dodgers are poised to win their fourth straight NL West title. Their entire starting rotation, including ace Clayton Kershaw, has been on the disabled list, but Roberts has been able to patch together a roster to keep the Dodgers in first place.
Collins should get some votes, because the Mets are now in the NL Wild Card chase after being written off. Speaking of injuries, that Mike Matheny has been able to keep the Cardinals in postseason contention despite the injury bug is amazing.
Maddon? The 2015 NL Manager of the Year Award winner has done what everyone expected him to do; the Cubs, who've already clinched a playoff berth, are on a pace to win 103 games. The Braves' Bobby Cox (2004-05) is the only manager to win back-to-back NL awards.
The Indians' Terry Francona is my choice for the American League honor. He's done more with his roster, including overcoming the loss of All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley, whose shoulder injury has limited him to just 11 games.
Rangers manager Jeff Banister, the 2015 AL winner, lost slugger Prince Fielder, but thanks to midseason trades, he has one of the most potent offenses in the Junior Circuit and is a solid choice.
The final two weeks in the tightly bunched AL East could possibly determine the winner. Boston's John Farrell, Baltimore's Buck Showalter and Toronto's John Gibbons will all be put to the test.
And then there's New York's Joe Girardi. He's a sleeper.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman dealt a handful of premier players at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, sent Alex Rodriguez packing and built for the future. But the combination of young players -- such as the amazing Gary Sanchez -- and the remaining veterans have suddenly helped the Yanks remain a possibility for an AL Wild Card berth.
Girardi has undoubtedly done his finest job as the Yankees' manager.
But when the votes are counted in November, it should be Baker and Francona.
"I had a burning desire to succeed in my heart that wasn't filled in my life [without baseball]," said Baker. "You're going to have voids in your life. I mean, you can live without them. But I'd rather not."
Winning a World Series has been a huge void which Baker would like to fill.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.