After two-year hiatus, Dusty Baker relishes return to dugout

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Dusty Baker hadn't given very much thought to the subject because he's been too busy getting to know a 62-man spring training roster and everything else involved in managing a new ballclub, including a 3 1/2-hour bus ride from Viera that departed at 7 a.m.

But when Baker did arrive at Charlotte Sports Park, stepped onto the field and into the visitors dugout, his return to baseball after a two-year absence moved a step closer to reality. There was a game to manage today, and that's a special thing for the 66-year-old skipper, who didn't know if he'd ever get this chance again.

"I guess it's kind of special," he said. "Now that I'm here, I feel like I haven't been away. I don't know if it feels that special or this is where I belong. You look back and think, well, maybe God wanted me to take this break. It's not a break that I wanted, necessarily, but it was probably best."

Baker-Presser-Smile-Sidebar.jpgThis, of course, is only the Grapefruit League opener against the Rays, with a lineup full of reserves and prospects. There's a far more significant game for Baker coming up in a month, when his Nationals travel to Atlanta for opening day.

But today's game in this sleepy outpost on Florida's Gulf Coast offered a taste of what's to come. When Baker made his way toward the dugout, fans applauded, snapped photos, and sought handshakes and autographs. Reporters flocked toward him, as did members of the opposing team and coaching staff.

Make no mistake: The Nationals' new manager is a baseball rock star, and he's back in his element.

Baker was asked how much he missed it all during his two-year hiatus after he was fired by the Reds following the 2013 season.

"I missed it, but life goes on," he said. "I can't sit around. I'm closer to death than birth. Therefore, you've got to live your life."

Even though he didn't initially seek it, Baker did enjoy his break. He was able to spend time with his family. He was able to travel to places he never could during his four decades in the sport (except Alaska, he pointed out, one remaining trip on his bucket list).

Through it all, though, Baker continued to watch baseball every chance he got. And he noticed how many things have changed in the game, even in the two years since he last managed.

"Probably how complicated we've made the game," he said when asked what has changed the most. "Not only analytics, but the terminology, hitting, pitching. I remember Ted Williams saying - I know it was a while ago, but still the same thing applies - 'Be natural.' We tend to analyze every swing, every pitch, everything. And there's a lot of terminologies. I don't even know if they understand the terminologies being used. But there comes a point in time when we have to get more into concentration and determination and heart."

What, Baker was asked, hasn't changed?

"He who touches home plate the most wins," he said with a smile. "Simple as that."

Baseball, of course, isn't nearly that simple, and Baker knows it. He has faced criticism over the years for being too old-school, anti-analytics. He insists that characterization isn't accurate, though he places a high level of importance on intangibles like clubhouse chemistry.

"It's very important," he said. "But I've also heard some people say that doesn't count, that doesn't matter. If you've ever been on a team, you know it matters a lot. It's very, very important. Because this game is still played by people with feelings and fears and aspirations and dreams.

"Don't get me wrong, people think I don't believe in analytics. Yes, I do. We just had a different name for it. If you've ever seen my cheat sheet, it was full of matchups and first-batter efficiencies and hitting with runners in scoring position and left-right matchups. It's been that the whole time. I just believe there's a combination of things. That's what's hardest to sell: the combination. I don't care if you buy it or not. All I've heard about is what I haven't done, what I don't believe in, what I don't like. And then I keep kicking your butt."

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