Five years later, Baker happy to return to Nationals Park

The first thing Dusty Baker noticed was the neighborhood. Navy Yard now looks a whole lot different from the last time he came here, in October 2017.

“Man, I sure wish I was invested in a couple buildings. Or in some big cranes,” he said with a laugh. “I’m telling you, this has really, really picked up. I stopped by on the way here today to see a friend, and I’d been over there many times, and I couldn’t find it. They’ve certainly built this area up.”

Once that initial shock of urban development wore off and he walked through the bowels of Nationals Park, past the home clubhouse he resided in for two years, and made his way to the visitors’ clubhouse he hadn’t set foot in since 2013 when he managed the Reds, the memories started coming back.

Good memories, even if it didn’t end the way he wanted it to.

“I had great memories here,” he said. “The people were great. I enjoyed the town. Like I’ve said many times, I enjoyed the diversity, the educational level here. For a two-year period, this is probably as good of a period as I’ve had anywhere.”

Baker returns this weekend in his third season with the Astros, defending American League champions, having just joined the elite 2,000-win club and still seeking the first World Series title of his managerial career after winning one as a player with the Dodgers in 1980.

He returns 4 1/2 years after Nationals ownership elected not to retain him when his initial two-year contract expired, even though he won back-to-back division titles and finished with a .593 winning percentage that still ranks as the best in franchise history, including the Expos years.

Baker returns with no hard feelings, at least not for the vast majority of people he worked for and with. He and general manager Mike Rizzo remain close, a relationship that only was bolstered when the Nats drafted Darren Baker out of Cal-Berkeley in 2021 and are now developing the young second baseman at Single-A Wilmington.

And he remains close with Davey Martinez, who shares the distinction of not only having replaced Baker as Nationals manager but having played for him with the Giants three decades ago.

“We’ve remained friends throughout the years,” said Martinez, now in his fifth season, with a 2019 World Series title on his resume. “What we do on the field is something different than the relationship we have off the field. We share a passion for wine. We share a passion for fishing. I’ve learned a lot, not only in the baseball world, but who he is and who he perceives to be helped me become the person that I am as well.”

That the Nationals and Astros share a spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., has helped foster the relationship between the two managers, though aside from the days they play each other, there’s little interaction between anyone from the two organizations.

More than anything, the Baker-Martinez relationship remains strong because of their innate qualities as human beings, never allowing the potential awkwardness of the situation to rise to the surface.

“No, it wasn’t awkward. 'Cause it wasn’t Davey’s fault,” Baker said. “I replaced Matt Williams, one of my former players, and it wasn’t his fault, either. I talked to Matt before I came here. I think I talked to Davey after he got here. Davey’s a great choice. Davey played for me. Davey was one of my favorite players. He learned a lot from being around Joe Maddon. Davey’s a very good manager, and he’s an excellent fisherman.”

Baker proceeded to share a story about the time he took Martinez and several other Giants players on a fishing trip on the Jersey Shore between road series in Philadelphia and New York. About 45 minutes earlier, Martinez, unprompted, mentioned the fishing trips he used to take with Baker in San Francisco Bay.

Clearly, there’s a connection there that has stood the test of time.

“Playing for Dusty, I learned from him,” Martinez said. “And it kind of molded me to what I wanted to be if I ever got an opportunity to manage. So for me, it’s just about how much Dusty respects and loves the game. I really feel like I love the game just as much and respect the game just as much. And also how he treats people. That’s something that I’ll never forget about Dusty, how he treated me and my family.”

The Nationals plan to play a tribute video for Baker before tonight’s series opener. The response from fans figures to be overwhelmingly positive.

This is nothing new for Baker, of course. He’s made countless returns to ballparks where he previously played or managed, and the reception almost always is warm and appreciative. He just wishes he didn’t have to make so many of those return trips over the span of his long career.

“Most of the time,” he said with a big grin on his face, “they seem like they appreciate me more when I came back than when I left.”

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