VIERA, Fla. - Dusty Baker knows his return to a big league dugout after a two-year hiatus is rare, not only to baseball but to professional sports in general. So when it came time to seek advice from somebody who might be able to offer some insight into the situation, Baker turned to a man who returned to his sport after a far longer break.
And that man just happened to be a Washington sports icon: Joe Gibbs.
Baker called the Hall of Fame coach earlier this week and wound up having a lengthy and poignant chat with the man who led the Redskins to three Super Bowl titles.
“I had never met him before, and I called him, and he called me back and he prayed with me on the phone,” said Baker, hired as Nationals manager over the winter two years after he was fired by the Reds. “I thought that was a heck of a gesture by somebody that I had never met before. He told me he’d been out of the game 11 years. Eleven years! I was out two!”
Like Gibbs, who coached the Redskins from 1981-92 and then again from 2004-07, Baker used his time away from sports to branch out into other endeavors. Gibbs has his highly successful NASCAR team; Baker has a modest winery and solar energy company.
“I was asking him, ‘How do you put your business to the side, or don’t you?’ ” Baker said. “Because I spent a lot of time and effort and money getting my businesses together thinking I might not be back in baseball. He gave me some great insight.”
Baker didn’t know how exactly to get in touch with Gibbs, so he turned to Rob McDonald (the Nationals’ longtime vice president of clubhouse operations and team travel) to track down a phone number. Baker also didn’t necessarily understand the poor timing of his initial call to the now-racing exec.
“He said he would call me next week,” Baker explained. “He said, ‘Tell Dusty I’ll call him on Monday,’ because they were trying to get the pole position at the Daytona 500. They had more pressing (issues).”
Baker tried to make the most of his time away from baseball, taking advantage of opportunities he simply couldn’t over the previous four decades. He was able to attend his daughter’s late-summer wedding. He was able to watch his son’s ballgames in person. He was able to be there for baseball friend Daryl Hamilton’s funeral last year.
As he sat in his new office at Space Coast Stadium on Friday, though, ready to see his Nationals pitchers and catchers take the field for the first time Saturday morning, Baker couldn’t help but enjoy the sense of familiarity that comes with his return to the sport that has consumed most of his life.
“I kind of belong here,” he said. “I was trying not to miss it. You can make yourself not miss something. And now that I’m back, I really did truly indeed miss it. People say I look happier.”