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Count on Nationals being better under Baker

Veteran manager's teams have improved in each of his previous stops
MLB.com

VIERA, Fla. -- When Dusty Baker takes over a team as manager, the record says that club becomes considerably better. And in two out of three cases, the major improvement has been immediate.

This ought to be significant encouragement to Baker's new club, the Washington Nationals. The Nats underachieved last season -- finishing 83-79.

VIERA, Fla. -- When Dusty Baker takes over a team as manager, the record says that club becomes considerably better. And in two out of three cases, the major improvement has been immediate.

This ought to be significant encouragement to Baker's new club, the Washington Nationals. The Nats underachieved last season -- finishing 83-79.

Between the talent on hand and Baker's track record of getting players to reach their full potential, the Nationals don't have to hope for better days. They should be able to plan on better days.

Baker to keep things loose in Nats' clubhouse

Baker took over the Giants in his first big league managerial job in 1993. The year before, San Francisco went 72-90. In '93, it went 103-59, for a 31-game improvement.

Baker won the first of his three National League Manager of the Year Awards that season. And that Giants team helped usher in the Wild Card era -- finishing second to the Braves by one game the NL West. The thinking behind the Wild Card was: Why should a team that won 103 games have no berth in October?

In 2003, Baker became manager of the Cubs. They had gone 67-95 the previous season. In '03, they went 88-74 for a 21-game improvement.

Not only that, those Cubs went from fifth to first place in the NL Central, won their Division Series, and fell one victory shy of reaching the World Series when they lost in the NL Championship Series against the Marlins.

In 2008, Baker became the manager of the Reds. Cincinnati made only a two-game improvement from the previous season, moving from 72-90 to 74-88. But two years later, the Reds went 91-71 to win the NL Central. So progress was still made.

Baker sets a tone that aims for serious achievement, but he also values enjoying the ride. His sense of humor is an essential part of who he is as a human being, and thus, as a manager. Spring Training has just started, but the Nats have already noticed the difference.

Video: Scherzer looking to be even better in 2016

"He has already changed things ... by keeping everybody loose," ace Max Scherzer said. "We're having more fun. His personality has so much charisma. Sometimes you just need new faces, and this is the situation. He has his own style. ... he has seen so much baseball. He just knows so much. He knows how to manage. He already has set the tone definitely this year. We'll see how we respond to it."

Personal candor is a part of the package with Baker, too.

"He speaks the truth," said third baseman Anthony Rendon. "That's what I love about him."

After the Nationals' first full-squad workout on Thursday, Baker spoke to the entire team for the first time. Among his words of advice were "start thinking like champions" and "think like a family."

Don't short-change the family factor.

"When I asked Bill Russell what was the secret of the [Boston] Celtics' success, he told me it was love," Baker said in his office at Space Coast Stadium. "When I asked John Wooden what was the secret to his success, he said the one thing he would have added to his 'pyramid of success' was love. It sounds corny, but it's real."

And now we're getting into what else works for this manager with a new club. Baker's affection for people is genuine. And by this time, with his playing career and 20 years of managing in the Majors, he has built-in credibility. So he can move people in the direction he believes they should go.

"You try to change the mindset, that's No. 1," Baker said. "You try to change the losing mentality and culture, and it helps when you have good players. Sometimes you have to add players, but sometimes you have to delete players."

In Cincinnati, Baker had to replace Scott Hatteberg at first base with a star in the making, Joey Votto.

"That was tough for me, because I had Hatteberg the first time I managed in the Fall League when he was with the Red Sox," Baker said. "But I saw something in Joey Votto that I needed to bring out at that time."

Managerial success, Baker would be the first to acknowledge, is not a one-man show.

"In San Francisco," Baker said with a smile, "Barry Bonds had a lot to do with it. And then we got a whole new pitching staff; Billy Swift, Dave Burba, Mike Jackson."

And by this time, Baker's expectations of success come along naturally as part of a lifetime of experience.

"I just feel like, whatever team I've been on, ever since I was a kid, we're going to win, no matter who we have," Baker said. 'That's the way I was raised."

This will be Baker's fourth big league managerial job and his 21st season skippering in the Majors. Based on the record, the question for 2016 is not whether the Nats will be better than 83-79, but how much better.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.

 

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