Dusty Baker’s unsettled contract situation hovered over the Nationals all season, but throughout it all, both Baker and general manager Mike Rizzo expressed confidence not only that both sides wanted the manager to return in 2018 but also that a deal was likely to get done once the season ended.
Only two weeks ago, as his team prepared for the National League Division Series, Rizzo continued to express that same confidence, even though they had not yet engaged in contract negotiations.
“We have not,” Rizzo said on Oct. 4. “We talk every day, and we’re both confident that he’ll be back with us, but we haven’t had any conversations about it. And we will not do so until we finalize this season.”
Baker, meanwhile, insisted all along he wasn’t worried about it.
“No, not really,” the manager said on Oct. 3. “I’m concentrating on today. My future is to really stay healthy, stay alive, so I can see my son play in the big leagues. You know what I mean? I’ve given some thought to some things, but we were told that we were waiting until after the season to make determination. There’s a good chance I’ll be back, which I want to (be) back.”
This morning, Rizzo called Baker and informed him that after two seasons, two division titles, 192 wins - and, most importantly, two first-round playoff exits - he was not being brought back for a third season in Washington.
Which raised a whole bunch of questions, starting with the most obvious one: What exactly happened in the last two weeks to change this story?
“First of all, I’d like to say it was one of the most difficult decisions the ownership group and myself have had to make since we’ve been here with Washington,” Rizzo said in a conference call about 50 minutes after the club made the announcement. “Dusty has been a great representative of the Washington Nationals for his tenure here, a class man, a Hall of Fame-type of manager.
“I think the one thing that happened from the regular season to the postseason was that we’ve come such a long way with the Nationals organization. In 2009, we were hoping to improve our record from 2008. In 2012, we were hoping to make the playoffs. Now our expectations have grown to the fact that winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions are not enough. Our goal is to win a world championship. And to that end, we made the decision late last night and alerted Dusty this morning.”
Rizzo, the only club executive to speak publicly about today’s move, insisted this was a decision based strictly on performance, ostensibly the performance of the Nationals during a pair of five-game series each of the last two Octobers, each of them ending in a one-run, do-or-die loss at home.
Last Thursday’s 9-8 loss to the Cubs - a wild, 4-hour, 37-minute marathon featuring a string of bizarre twists and calamities - apparently was the last straw.
“After Game 5, we assessed where we’re at and where we’re going with our organization,” Rizzo said. “We thought after Game 5 that this was the right decision to make.”
Baker had strong support throughout the clubhouse, both during the season and after the Game 5 loss, though a couple of prominent players (Bryce Harper and Trea Turner) wouldn’t give straight-up endorsements for their manager and instead said that was a decision for the front office to make.
All season, the entire clubhouse recognized their manager’s tenuous status, though that wasn’t anything new for anyone who has played for this organization for any length of time. No Nationals manager has survived more than 2 1/2 years on the job since the franchise relocated to Washington in 2005.
And as had been the case for five of the club’s previous six skippers - all but Matt Williams, who was fired with another year left on his contract - Baker found himself in the uncomfortable position of managing with no job security beyond the current season.
That, in part, was due to the nature of the contract he signed in November 2015, with only two years guaranteed for a total of $4 million, according to multiple reports. That contract came about only after the Nationals initially selected Bud Black for the job, only to have the veteran manager balk at the club’s preliminary offer of one guaranteed year, ultimately causing negotiations to break down altogether.
Given the organization’s history, it was fair to wonder whether the Nationals didn’t decide to let Baker go strictly for performance reasons but for financial reasons. Rizzo, though, insisted there never were any negotiations that could have gone sour.
“This was a pure baseball decision,” the GM said. “Our goal is win a world championship. And to that end, we’re going to create a manager search. But this had absolutely nothing to do with negotiations, dollars. It was not a negotiation with Dusty. I talked to Dusty this morning and told him of our decision, and he took the news with his usual class and dignity and professionalism. We hung up the phone with a good taste in both of our mouths.”
Rizzo was the one charged with delivering the news to Baker, and then to the public. But the decision to make a managerial change was not exclusively his. He said it was made collectively with ownership and declined to say whether he personally argued for retaining Baker.
“This decision was obtained like every important, major decision we make here,” he said. “It’s a total group decision with a consensus at the end of it, and this was no different.”