PITTSBURGH - It's easy to forget now, after 90 wins, a division title and all the praise heaped upon him, but Dusty Baker was out of baseball the last two years.
Fired by the Reds after losing the 2013 National League wild card game to the Pirates, the manager of two decades and key baseball figure of more than four decades was suddenly on the outside looking in. And he didn't know if he'd ever get a chance to return.
"Well, they were tough," he said of the last two years. "But they were pretty good, too."
Sure, Baker did get to travel, got to watch his daughter get married, got to watch his son play ball. But make no mistake, there was a void. He knew he could still manage. Did anyone else?
The Nationals did. Eventually. After a dalliance with Bud Black that fell apart over contract negotiations, Baker got the call he didn't know he'd ever get again. And 11 months later, he was back at PNC Park, this time doused in champagne and beer after leading the Nationals to the NL East title.
"He impressed us so much in the interview process," principal owner Mark Lerner said. "We knew he was the right one for this job. And you could tell tonight, just his reaction, he was in tears. You could tell the tears between the champagne and the beer. He was really moved by it."
Baker knew he was inheriting a championship-caliber team. And he sensed from the outset his players knew it, as well.
"That's what I came here for," he said. "This is what I expected, and I think this is what these guys expected, too. From spring training, we talked about where we wanted to go, what we had to do, and they worked hard for it. I mean, this is something. I want these guys to enjoy it and just have a good time."
A gregarious personality who seems to know everyone (whether in baseball or not), Baker has always had a reputation for being able to relate to people of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Nationals players quickly picked up on that as they got to know him this spring.
"Every day he comes here, and I don't think I've ever seen him in a bad mood," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I've never seen him be negative at all. He's always positive. It's one of those guys you like to play for, because you always feel like he's got your back. Every single day, he's the same guy, whether it's going good or going bad."
Baker has enjoyed success everywhere he's been. This is his fifth division title as a manager. He has won at least one with four different organizations. He has won one pennant.
Now, after two years away from the game, he seeks to check off the final empty box on his managerial resume.
"He picked the right team," right fielder Bryce Harper said. "If he was going to pick a team, he picked the right one."