WASHINGTON -- During the middle of manager Dusty Baker's media conference on Tuesday afternoon, the conversation shifted away from the Nationals' opponent in the National League Division Series, the Dodgers (FS1, 5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. PT); Washington's injury updates or impending decisions for the final roster spots to himself.Baker sat
WASHINGTON -- During the middle of manager Dusty Baker's media conference on Tuesday afternoon, the conversation shifted away from the Nationals' opponent in the National League Division Series, the Dodgers (FS1, 5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. PT); Washington's injury updates or impending decisions for the final roster spots to himself.
Baker sat behind a table with an NLDS logo serving as the backdrop, about to enter the postseason for the eighth time in his 21 years as a manager, reflecting on his place in baseball after watching from the sidelines the past two Octobers.
Baker had been dismissed from his previous job with the Reds despite making the postseason in 2013. He reached out to numerous teams, and at times never even received a call back, which left him wondering if he had been blacklisted from the game he had given nearly five decades of his life. Baker did not sound bitter or angry, rather at peace, even as he prepares to chase the World Series championship that has eluded his managerial career.
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"To me, this is kind of where I'm supposed to be," Baker said.
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Those close to Baker have said he is mellower in his first season with the Nationals, in what is almost certainly the 67-year old's final stint as a Major League manager. He is one of the few managers in baseball who has not been ejected this season and rarely spends much time arguing with umpires. All season, Baker has quickly dismissed questions using words such as worry, concern, or expectations because "ain't no sense in worrying about something you can't control."
"I think what we're seeing in Dusty is he's had a chance to really reflect on his career, his family, his life," said Joe Babich, who met Baker in 1974. "It's almost like a homecoming. He had an opportunity to be away, he's never taken anything for granted, he's always appreciated what he's been given by baseball, but it's almost like he's come home and he's more relaxed.
"There's a very visible sense of peace with him now."
Baker agreed with the assessment, citing his previous health scares as the reason for his realization. He has survived prostate cancer and was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat and mini-stroke near the end of the 2012 season. He described his fight with near depression after being dismissed in Cincinnati a year later, where he felt down for about three days.
Baker spent the two years away from baseball enjoying his life. He attended his son's high school baseball games; watched his daughter get married in his backyard; started businesses and took care of his health more; went to Canada and Montana and spent time hunting and fishing, two of his favorite activities.
"You realize what's important to you and your family," Baker said. "You come to this realization. It actually helps my productivity in this job. This is a tough job. You see guys in different sports have health problems. This is a tough job, but it is a very gratifying job. This is something I take pride in doing and try to do to the best of my abilities."
After Nationals losses -- although there have not been many this season for a team that went 95-67 and won the NL East -- Baker does what so many other people do on their way home from work, reflect on his day. He replays the game in his mind, wrestling with whether he should have handled a situation in the game differently. Perhaps in the past, those decisions could linger with Baker.
This season he has been able to move on more easily, not carrying the weight of those decisions into the next day. Baker's friends assure you that he still takes losses hard and there are few people more competitive, but he spends less time worrying about situations that are out of his hands. And despite having the second-best record in baseball, the Nationals have their share of concerns: How worried is Baker that Stephen Strasburg won't return for the postseason and how do they move forward without him? How concerned is Baker about Bryce Harper not repeating the production he did during his NL MVP season in 2015? Does Baker expect Daniel Murphy to return to the lineup?
"I think you start to go, if I don't have it now, staying up til four in the morning worrying won't help," Baker's friend Willie Werking said.
"I know now that Dusty, earlier on, this game wore on him, I could tell," said Chris Speier, who has been Baker's bench coach since they began in Cincinnati in 2007. "This time around, he just seems a lot happier and a lot more at peace and he doesn't take defeat, doesn't take losses, doesn't take down times as hard as he used to. It's really refreshing. Makes us turn the page a lot quicker, too."
And that's exactly what the Nationals wanted when they hired Baker during the offseason.
Their issues in the clubhouse were well-documented last season, which led to the dismissal of previous manager Matt Williams. Baker admits he does not spend much time in the clubhouse, and the players rave about the confidence he instills in them to be themselves.
"You can't say enough about him," outfielder Jayson Werth said recently on an MLB.com podcast. "I mean, we've gone from one end of the spectrum to the other in a short period of time. When you walk into Spring Training, that first day of Spring Training, you could tell just how relaxed the atmosphere was in the clubhouse. And that's held true throughout the whole season, and I think all that credit goes to Dusty.
"He had a vision, and what he wanted to do with this team, and he started that Day One of Spring Training and has kept that going all the way here until the end of the season. I know we'll get a pretty cool speech from him before the postseason starts; I'm looking forward to that. He's just a pillar. He comes in every day with the same attitude. I've always said, players reflect their manager, and obviously we've reflected him in that regard. We've been ready to play, but relaxed; having a good time, and ready to win."
As Baker reflected on himself on Tuesday, he said that he wanted to be the first African-American manager in the Hall of Fame. He began thinking about it when he began passing other Hall of Fame managers in career win totals while he was with the Reds, even if he knows he missed out on two years' worth of victories during his forced exile.
Now, Baker prepares to enter the postseason with his fourth team where a World Series victory with the Nationals could cement that Hall of Fame resume.
Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.