Dusty is a perfect fit with Nationals
Veteran manager's personality should help loosen up talented club
Courtesy of the Nationals doing the right thing for their franchise -- along with for mom, apple pie and the American flag -- by hiring Dusty Baker as manager, I'm thinking about something: During the nearly 40 years I've covered Major League Baseball, I'm wondering if I've ever met anybody more fascinating than this renaissance man.
I'm still thinking.
Actually, Baker is nearly peerless.
In his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., he has a wine business, and he runs Baker Energy Team, which promotes the storage of solar energy. He is a prolific fisherman. For verification, he has more than a few photos of himself next to scaly things nearly as large as his 6-foot-2 frame that is mostly fit at 66. He enjoys bagging ducks and geese, but only when he isn't on a turkey hunt or planting mustard greens and beets in his backyard garden.
Did I mention Baker was a Marine during the Vietnam War era, or that he'll discuss everything during interviews from the habits of gigantic tortoises in the Pacific Ocean to the deeper meaning of The Three Stooges? He also knows baseball. In fact, he knows a lot about it. That comes from his two decades as a prominent outfielder in the Major Leagues before he ran baseball teams as a manager for another 20 years.
"You know what Hank Aaron used to do?" Baker said near the end of this past season as we sat in the home dugout at Turner Field in Atlanta.
Now, before I continue, when Baker asks something like that, his response usually will involve a perspective you've never heard. Such was the case this time, with Baker visiting the town that once featured Aaron and himself in the same Braves lineup from 1968-74.
Following Baker's trade from the Braves to the Dodgers after the 1975 season, he prospered as a slugger and a fielder for eight seasons in Chavez Ravine. Then he finished his playing career with the Giants and the A's.
The Dodgers. The Giants. The A's. No matter where Baker landed after his Atlanta days, Aaron never was far from his mind, and on this afternoon, the owner of 755 home runs still wasn't.
So, what did Aaron used to do?
"He used to have this special way to strengthen his wrists during the season, and it didn't involve weights," Baker said. "You know how thick the Sunday paper is? Well, he would get that, and then he would roll it up as much as he could, and then he would squeeze the whole thing. He would keep squeezing, and that's one of the reasons his wrists were so quick in the batter's box."
Take that, advanced metrics.
Not that Baker is opposed to the growing obsession of teams regarding the meaning of virtually every movement and thought of a player. He'll embrace whatever the Nationals' analytical staff has to offer, because Baker is as inclusive as they come in decision making. It's just that Baker is a master at combining his gut and his heart with his outgoing personality to maneuver his teams toward goodness more often than not.
The Nationals are looking for greatness.
"Beyond compare, this is the best talent [I've ever had]. That's why I was excited about coming here," Baker said during his introductory news conference Thursday in Washington.
He was discussing a Nationals roster with one of the game's elite players in Bryce Harper, impressive starting pitching and enough additional pieces to surge deep into October.
Then Baker remembered his earlier managerial days with the Giants, Cubs and Reds. In 1993, when he made his debut as a Major League skipper, he led the Giants to 103 victories. That was before Wild Cards in baseball, which is why those Giants missed the playoffs after the Braves won 104 games in the same division. Still, Baker eventually led the Giants to the 2002 World Series, where they lost to the Angels in seven games. The following year, he nearly pushed the Cubs to their first NL pennant since 1945, before they also dropped a seventh game, this one in the NL Championship Series vs. the Marlins.
As for the Reds, they reached the playoffs during three of Baker's final four years in Cincinnati. When he took over the team before the 2008 season, they hadn't made the postseason since 1995.
"Most of the other teams [I managed] were at the bottom or near the bottom and had to be built from the bottom," Baker told reporters. "I asked [former Golden State Warriors coach] Al Attles, 'How come I always get teams and have to build 'em up?' He said, 'Dusty, you do more with less.' I told him I was ready to do more with more."
So here is Baker, with a gifted yet underachieving Nationals bunch that spent the past two seasons under the no-frills leadership of Matt Williams, who was among Baker's former players with the Giants.
The Williams approach didn't work.
After the Nationals threatened to end their mediocre ways this summer, they finished second in the NL East for the second time in three years. The Nats won division titles in 2012 and '14, but they lost both times in the NL Division Series.
Such things happen when your talented clubhouse is more tight than loose. In contrast, Baker spends much of his time with a toothpick dangling from the side of his mouth. In addition, he likes describing his readings from "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun," or telling somebody how he helped to invent the hi-five, or serving as the ultimate dad to his 16-year-old son.
Yep, this was a perfect hire for everybody. And the Nationals just might get a pennant and a World Series championship out of it.