Dusty Baker: Higher Ground

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by Mike Feigen

The Nationals’ new skipper brings not just a wealth of managerial experience to the dugout, but a cultural consciousness that could make him D.C.’s baseball Renaissance man.

 

Nationals Park, quiet since it was shuttered at the close of the 2015 regular season, bustled with excitement on the morning of November 5. As media members gathered and club staffers prepared the press conference room for the arrival of the sixth full-time manager since baseball returned to the District, a spring-like energy pulsed through the ballpark despite the gray-skied autumn weather outside.

That afternoon, following an inspiring 35-minute press conference — after Dusty Baker introduced himself, and quickly charmed the assembled press, staffers, and fans — the decision made by the Nationals ownership and front office to install the 66-year-old Baker in their dugout was given instant validation. Outside, the vestige of clouds and rain had given way to warm, midday sunshine.

The breath of fresh air Baker helped usher in was meaningful and poetic.

Baker’s biography reads like something straight out of central casting: nearly 50 years of professional baseball experience, including 20 successful seasons as a player and 20 more as a Major League manager; six times an All-Star, twice a Silver Slugger, once a Gold Glove winner and once a World Series champion; three times a National League Manager of the Year, eight times the pilot of a 90-win team.

But this hire was about much more than just the resume. After enduring an unexpected end to the 2015 season, the Nationals’ organization knew it had to find the type of leader who could command the respect of the clubhouse, and restore a positive, winning belief in its fan base and community.

On that score, Baker’s track record is nearly impeccable.

“I want to get this team together as soon as possible, from top to bottom,” Baker said at his November 5 press conference. “Because the great teams I’ve been on and organizations that I’ve been in, from top to bottom, everyone believes.”

Asked what he’d say to his new team the first day of Spring Training, Baker said he actually believes the progress of cultivating organizational belief starts long before pitchers and catchers report, beginning with conversations he’ll have with players and personnel this offseason.

“It’s something I have to feel,” Baker said about his approach. “(It’s) something that can’t be fabricated, something that can’t be fake, because guys can see when you’re not being genuine. I’ll see what this team needs, because I really don’t know exactly what they need.”

That flexible approach to handling players lends insight into Baker’s managerial style. He uses his instincts and deep baseball knowledge to guide his moves throughout the course of the season, relying on a roughly 7,000-game personal sample to inform his decision-making. According to President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo, Nationals fans won’t see a scripted, by-the-numbers style of managing in 2016; like some of the musicians he cited in his introductory press conference, Baker’s improvisational skills and feel for the rhythm of the game may be his greatest attribute.

Moreover, that free-flowing style will not preclude the dugout veteran using statistics and analytics in his game preparation. The game has evolved, and so has he.

“Adaptation is no problem for me,” Baker explained. “My friends call me ‘The Chameleon’ because they think I can adapt to any place, anytime, anywhere, and so I would like to think that I transcend different generations, like some musicians. I mean, Stevie Wonder still sounds good. And The Doors might sound even better.”

A self-described working man, Baker will first work with Rizzo to fill out the rest of the Nationals’ coaching staff. Baker’s connections within the game span his playing (Atlanta Braves, 1968-75, Los Angeles Dodgers, 1976-83, San Francisco Giants, 1984, Oakland Athletics, 1985-86) and coaching days (Giants, 1988-2002, Chicago Cubs, 2003-06 and Cincinnati Reds, 2008-13), giving him a multitude of options to fill the various assistant roles.

The club has already announced the additions of respected pitching coach Mike Maddux and first base coach and baserunning specialist Davey Lopes, who own a combined 37 years of Major League experience in similar positions.

Baker said he and Maddux had always shared a mutual interest in coaching with one another, and he and Lopes, who managed the Milwaukee Brewers from 2000-02, were best of friends from their playing days with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the greater D.C. community, Baker has a close relationship with University of Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson that dates back some 50 years. He knows local politicians, “from the President on down,” he quipped at his press conference. He understands the large military influence in the area, having served as a reservist in the United States Marine Corps at Quantico during the Vietnam War era. He’s a business owner, an author, a philanthropist and a leader.

And while he’s never resided full-time in the District, he feels familiar and comfortable in his new surroundings.

“It’s like a family — it’s like coming home,” Baker said.

Baker’s ability to adapt to the pulse of the people around him, like his ability to work with his players, will also be welcomed by the greater Washington community.

The area, left without Major League Baseball from 1972-2004, is still rebuilding after just 11 continuous seasons of baseball after a 33 season absence. That lost generation of baseball fans, many of whom have children currently growing up with the Nationals, is slowly coming back into the fold and reclaiming their allegiances. When baseball returned 11 years ago, some neighborhoods, such as Wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River, had little remaining infrastructure to support the game.

Recognizing that challenge, members of the Lerner family, in coordination with local civic leaders and Major League Baseball, have worked hard to bring baseball back to the children of the DMV, from the Nationals Youth Baseball Uniform Program to the instruction at the state-of-the-art Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast D.C.

Those endeavors have proven fruitful, particularly at the Academy, as cohorts of scholar-athletes — many of whom who were not previously exposed to baseball and softball — have learned the game as well as lessons in math, science, reading and personal nutrition.

And while Baker was explicitly hired to bring success to the Nationals baseball team, as the only African-American manager at the game’s highest level, he says he is excited to join a community with such a rich demographic fabric.

“I’m used to diversity, and this is probably the most diverse setting and most diverse town I’ve been in,” he said.

“I’ve felt a sense of responsibility the whole time I’ve been managing,” he continued. “I’ve had a sense of responsibility since I was a kid, in different walks of life. My parents were heavily involved in the NAACP when I was a kid, and I was in the Junior NAACP. There’s a sense of pride, and at the same time, hopefully I can help make a difference, because all the calls I’ve gotten, a lot of people say, ‘Hey man, it’s better to have you in the game then out of the game.’”

Having Baker back in the game will be a welcome sight to Nationals players and fans alike, a group collectively ready to turn the page on the 2015 season and take the next step after the division titles of 2012 and 2014.

After a brief introduction and an opening statement at his press conference, Baker received his cap and No. 12 jersey. He put on the cap, curling the brim in his hands, and cracked a smile.

“My son wants me to wear a flat bill,” he said with a grin. “I can’t do it.”

Then he stood tall, stretching his 6-foot-2 frame. On went the jersey.

“My mom used to be a model,” he said. “She used to go like this.”

Baker spun and sashayed his hips on the dais. The crowd laughed. The clouds were lifted. The Nationals were back in business.

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