Former pitcher Mark Prior ran into Dusty Baker in San Diego last year at a scouting event his old manager’s son was participating in. Baker was out of baseball after being fired by the Cincinnati Reds, but baseball wasn’t out of him.
“You can tell the desire and the fire is still in him,” Prior said. “He wants to try to win a World Series. You can tell that it eats him up a little bit that he’s been close a couple times and hasn’t been able to punch through.”
With his passion as strong as ever, Baker needed an opportunity. Last fall the Washington Nationals gave it to him, hiring the 66-year-old to replace Matt Williams as manager.
When veteran pitcher Bronson Arroyo heard the news, he texted Baker, “Hey, back at it again.” Baker replied: “Yeah, one last album.”
Baker’s last album could be his final chance to win the championship that has evaded him. The challenge for the old-school baseball lifer is to guide the stacked Nationals _ led by Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman and Jonathan Papelbon _ back to the postseason after their 2015 collapse.
“He’s great with young players, he’s good with veterans,” said retired outfielder Doug Glanville, the ESPN analyst who played for Baker with the Chicago Cubs. “I’m very curious to see how everything evolves with him in D.C. with personalities like Harper, young guys who are kind of new-school … and meshing that with the team that’s got a lot of talent.”
Baker led the Giants, Cubs and Reds to the playoffs and won the National League pennant with San Francisco in 2002. None of those teams were arguably as deep or as talented as the 2016 Nationals.
Those who have known Baker for decades aren’t worried about how he’ll adjust to more modern sabermetrics or video replay. It’s his ability to connect with people that sets him apart.
“Communication may be a little higher than knowing your Xs and Os,” said Nationals first base coach Davey Lopes, a longtime friend of Baker and the godfather to his daughter. “You can have all the Xs and Os and there’s a lot of guys that can’t communicate, they can’t get these guys to take it to the next level. That’s not Dusty’s situation. For me, I’d say he’s one of the best communicators I’ve ever seen.”
Despite being 30 years older than the Nationals’ oldest players, Baker is still one of the boys. He proudly wears his wristbands and the jewelry he jokingly calls “the Mr. T starter set.” He often has his signature toothpick in his mouth, which is actually a Tea Tree Australian chewing stick that Baker uses to try to avoid dipping tobacco.
Despite his deep baseball roots, Baker’s interests lie beyond the game.
Former players recall him bringing vegetables from his garden into the clubhouse and quoting rapper 50 Cent in speeches.
While he was not managing, Baker got involved in solar and wind power, jumped into the wine business, traveled to Montana and Canada and spent time with the Native American Cheyenne tribe. Arroyo said Baker went into one pitchers meeting and said he’d talk in a different language each day and they’d have to guess what it is.
“He’s a real worldly guy,” Arroyo said. “You know the commercial `The Most Interesting Man in the World?’ Dusty’s like the second-most interesting man in the world.”
“I call him the chameleon because he can adapt to anything and fit in anywhere, any place,” former player Eric Karros added. “He’s somebody that can walk into a room and you can have six different cultures and he fits with everybody and there’s no uneasiness. Everything’s comfortable.”
Baker is really comfortable in a manager’s office, conceding he missed the game and that people tell him now that he looks happy again.
All of Baker’s worldliness won’t help him decide who to pinch-hit or when to pull a starting pitcher from a game. The reputation of wearing out pitchers’ arms dating to his time with Prior and Kerry Wood still follows him around, but Prior said he doesn’t fault Baker for how injuries derailed his career.
No matter Baker’s decisions, his confidence engenders loyalty among players that goes along with his decades in baseball and the authority that comes with those experiences.
Baker commands respect from his World Series-winning playing career and 20 seasons as a major league manager. He signed on for two years with the Nationals, which made Arroyo smile after hearing Baker say for years that he once dreamt of winning a World Series in a red uniform.
“Seeing him come back, it’s great because he is such a fixture of baseball’s voice,” Glanville said. “I thought it was really important that he pass that torch in a way that he can end on the note he wants to end on.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/swhyno .