April 19, 2021

Washington Nationals officially introduce Dusty Baker as manager

Dusty Baker was formally introduced on Thursday morning with great fanfare as the sixth manager in Washington Nationals history in a press conference at Nationals Park.

Baker, 66, was accompanied by the team’s general manager, Mike Rizzo. The overall mood of the day was one of humor and looking toward the future, with the affable Baker cracking a number of jokes and Rizzo saying that it must be a big day when the occasion calls for him to wear a tie.

Baker comes to DC after a week of turmoil surrounding the club, as Bud Black, the one-time favorite to replace Matt Williams, was reportedly offered a short-term and low-cost deal that turned the former San Diego manager off to negotiations entirely. When the two sides could not agree to terms, Baker was offered the job and accepted a reported two-year, $4 million deal with incentives. After much public ridicule, the Nationals did indeed “win the press conference” with their new skipper.

Rizzo said the team was excited to work with Baker and his “impeccable resume, the way he handles players, [and] the success rate he’s had at other stops.

“His strengths are plentiful. He does everything you need to do to be a successful manager. From game preparation to — he’s famous for the handling of players and handling of the clubhouse and that type of thing, but when you dig farther and you dig deeper and you watch the man navigate nine innings of a baseball game, it is truly something to watch.

“We’re looking for bigger and better things than we’ve ever had here,” Rizzo said.

For his part, Baker said that he’s always thought about managing in the nation’s capital, his fourth stop in a career of National League managing that’s included tenures in San Francisco (1993-2002), Chicago (2003-06) and Cincinnati (2008-13).

“It’s like coming home,” said Baker, who has godchildren in Maryland and knows a number of politicians in the area, including President Obama.

“Beyond compare, this is the best talent — that’s why I was excited about coming here,” he said. “I asked a friend of mine, ‘How come I always get teams and have to build them up?’ He says, ‘Dusty, you do more with less.’ I told him that I was ready to do more with more.”

Rizzo said that Baker did not interview for the job in 2013, when protégé Williams was chosen. “The reason I didn’t want the job is because Matt Williams had already talked to me about different things, and Matt was one of my prized pupils when I was a batting coach and a manager,” Baker said. “So actually, I was glad that they didn’t offer me the job, because I didn’t want to cut Matt out.”

Baker’s warm personality shined through when introduced with his new No. 12 jersey and cap, as he flexed and pretended to walk down a runway — his mother was a model — for the cameras, eliciting laughs from the sizable press contingent in attendance.

One storyline discussed since the announcement was made is the fact that Baker is the only black manager in Major League Baseball, in a city whose African-American community has played an immeasurable role in its culture, history and politics, while baseball remains a sport dominated by white players, managers, and front office personnel.

“This is probably the most diverse setting and the most diverse town that I’ve been in … I’ve felt a sense of responsibility the whole time I’ve been in managing, because there have never really been many managers of color,” Baker said. “There is a sense of pride, and at the same time, hopefully I can make a difference because all the calls that I’ve gotten, a lot of people said, ‘It’s better to have you in the game than out of the game.'”

“We didn’t have that thought,” Rizzo said when asked if Baker’s race played a role in him getting the job. “We really chose Dusty for the resume he brings and the way he conducted himself. Really, the thing that put Dusty over the top was the trust factor that he had with not only me, but the trust factor with ownership was huge in this process.”

Baker appears to be comfortable in working with MVP candidate and star outfielder Bryce Harper. When asked about that opportunity, as well as the well-publicized dugout dust-up between Harper and Jonathan Papelbon near the end of September, Baker drew on his own experience as a major-leaguer for almost two decades.

“[Harper] can play. I mean, he can really play. I love watching him play. And the thing about it is, I’m not really intimidated or anything by stars, because I was a star,” he said. “I wasn’t as bright a star as some of these guys, but I was a star. I tell them I don’t care how much money you make. Don’t plan on giving me any of your money; I’m not giving you any of mine. But when the game starts, it’s not about money, it’s about whether I kick your butt or you kick mine, it’s as simple as that.

“There’s always conflict at some point of time. I’ve never been on a team that didn’t have any. I’ve only been on one team that had it visible like that on TV. [I learned] from my Marines days, you handle it like men and you talk about it, and you get it out in the open and you don’t let things fester. That’s the main way.

“I remember one time, I had a dispute with a teammate, and I should’ve known better from being in the Marines, but sometimes you forget. And so I was upset with this guy and so Reggie Smith called the guy over. He goes ‘Hey man, Dusty’s got a beef with you.’ And he told him what I said. I said, ‘Man, don’t tell him that.’ And he said, ‘Well you said it.’ And it got out in the open and we’re best of friends now. That’s how you deal with it. And you can sort of see it on the plane, on the bus, on different things. And you try to bring guys together as quickly as you can.”

He went on to say that he’d even had his throat grabbed during his playing days, “because I was kind of a little cocky, too. But you learn.”

The subtext of the entire situation has been about the developments late last week and over the weekend with regard to the final decision of who the manager would be. Last Wednesday night, Black was expected to get the job, and Baker had “just resigned myself [to not getting the job]. I was a little bewildered as to why no one had told me that I didn’t get the job, and then I found out later that they hadn’t made up their mind,” he said Thursday.

The team was in talks with Baker as early as Monday night and were never close to a deal with Black, according to USA Today. In other words, confusion reigned until there was simply no more confusion to be had regarding the matter when Baker was officially announced to the role Tuesday morning.

In his first public comments since the weekend, Rizzo said, “[The ownership and I] are in concert all the time. You have the ownership board that I meet with bimonthly throughout the entire calendar year. When we make these big decisions, they certainly have input and they’re involved. I think that’s good for the organization … It was an extremely unique situation where we came down to the wire with two extremely qualified candidates that we thought could impact the ballclub.

“When things get leaked out and the media runs with it, there’s not a whole lot that we can do … At the end of the day, it did not come down to money, it did not come down to term; it came down to who were we most comfortable with, and Dusty was the right choice.

“When we make a decision [that’s] baseball-related, I make the final choice. When we leave that room, we are unanimous,” Rizzo said.

“Bud Black was one of the finalists we had. We definitely had financial parameters discussed with him and Dusty at the same time. At the end of the day, we decided to make Dusty our manager. Dusty, in our mind, was never out of it,” he added.

Baker is perhaps notorious for his eschewing of advanced statistics, like on-base plus slugging (OPS), and has drawn some criticism for that from the new school of baseball thought. However, he emphasized his open-mindedness Thursday, saying, “Adaptation is no problem for me. My friends call me a chameleon, because they think I can adapt to any place, any time, 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,” he said, one of several quotes on the day that signaled a departure from the monotonous, playing-close-to-the-vest nature of Williams. He also mentioned that baserunning will be something fans can watch for, something that new world champion Kansas City has been known for. One new addition to the dugout could perhaps help with that.

Baker and Rizzo have begun putting together a coaching staff intent on guiding the seemingly-voodooed franchise to its first World Series appearance, and the first title in D.C. since 1924. That staff includes pitching coach Mike Maddux and first-base coach Davey Lopes.

Maddux, older brother of Hall-of-Famer Greg, served in the same role for the Rangers over the last seven seasons and played in the majors for nine teams, including Montreal, over 14 years. Lopes spent the previous five seasons with Los Angeles in the same position, and was teammates with Baker on the Dodgers’ 1981 team that won the World Series.

This is also Lopes’ second stint in Washington, having been the first base coach under Frank Robinson in 2006. Those Nationals had a staggeringly high 66 percent success rate in stealing bases.

“We have not discussed Barry Bonds as a candidate,” Rizzo said, with respect to who the team’s new hitting coach will be. Bonds has been rumored as a potential replacement for Rick Schu, due to his ten-year relationship with Baker in San Francisco that featured a pennant in 2002, three MVP awards and nine All-Star Game appearances for Bonds, and two division titles.

“We have several people in mind that are in play. It’s fairly new after we’ve got the manager in place, so there’s several positions that we’re still looking to fill. We’re looking for the best and brightest coaching staff to surround Dusty with,” Rizzo said.

After several seasons of high-profile injury woes, the Nationals have begun investing into what Rizzo called a “health system,” and Baker said that trainer Paul Lessard has joined the team from Cincinnati, according to the Washington Post. Lessard was with both Arizona and Boston when they won the World Series in 2001 and 2007, respectively.

Baker wrapped up the press conference by saying he doesn’t think of himself as 66 years old, and his new boss agrees with the sentiment that the nearly-five-decade veteran of the game won’t have his age show too much. “From all the reports I’ve gotten from all the guys that have been recently been with him, this guy’s a ball of fire and he gets after it,” Rizzo said.

Baker, however, might have summed it up better.

“I don’t know how old I am sometimes. It really doesn’t matter. Because the way I look at it — not sounding cocky or nothing — but I don’t see a whole bunch of dudes out there that look better than me.”

Unlike many head coaches/managers in professional sports, Baker can be found on Twitter, at @dbaker_12.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

About Eric Hobeck

Eric Hobeck is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Redskins and Capitals. Eric contributes to high school sports coverage at InsideNova.com. He served as sports editor of The Rotunda at Longwood University for two years, where he was also the men’s basketball beat writer. He hosted a campus radio show for three years and called basketball and baseball games for the station’s award-winning sports team. You can follow Eric on Twitter @eric_hobeck.

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