Dusty Baker has been the manager of the Nationals for roughly 14 months, so it’s a little hard to fathom how he could already be a lame duck skipper.
But he is. The two-year deal that he signed in November 2015 runs through 2017, meaning that Baker has now entered a period of limbo that’s treated other Nationals managers rather poorly.
Remember the end of the 2013 campaign, Davey Johnson’s last at the helm? It was already prearranged that Johnson would manage through 2013 and then move into a special assistant role with the club, with a new manager to take over for him. Well, when the Nats were 16 games out of first place in the National League East in August and a club going nowhere in a hurry knew its manager wasn’t coming back regardless of how well or poorly they played, it created quite an awkward clubhouse - even before Matt Williams took over.
Or how about Jim Riggleman’s surprise resignation on June 23, 2011, when the Nats were in the midst of winning 12 of 13 games? Frustrated because he was a lame duck and because the team refused to pick up the option that would have kept him in his position for 2012, Riggleman told general manager Mike Rizzo 45 minutes before a getaway day game against the Mariners that he would resign if his contract situation wasn’t addressed. The Nationals were enjoying the afterglow of a 1-0 walk-off win on Laynce Nix’s ninth-inning sacrifice fly - the victory putting them above .500 in June for the first time since 2005, their first season in D.C. - when Riggleman made good on his promise, telling shocked reporters that he was “too old to be disrespected,” and Rizzo was left to explain how a winning club was about to board a flight to Chicago to play the White Sox without a permanent manager in place. John McLaren managed the weekend series, and Johnson took over when the Nats arrived in Anaheim to continue their road trip.
Which brings us to the current situation with the Nats and Baker, who proved at 67 that he still had the chops to pilot a fourth team to the playoffs. Baker’s first year in charge of the Nats was an unqualified success, save for the team’s third first-round playoff ouster in five seasons. Baker enjoyed being back in uniform and immediately created a strong bond with the players he was in charge of. There was a fun but businesslike attitude in the clubhouse, and the Nationals seemed to enjoy Baker’s presence as much as Baker enjoyed being in the manager’s seat after a two-year absence following his firing by the Reds after the 2013 season.
It’s clear Baker has something left in the tank. And at the Winter Meetings, he broached the subject of how much longer he wanted to manage.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Tell you the truth, the way I look at it - between my family, my hunger, between, you know, the prayers that I send up looking for answers and looking for clues - it will come to me, you know? Some of it’s in your control and some of it’s out of your control. If it was in my control, I wouldn’t have been out two years in the first place, but you can’t hire yourself.”
Age can be a factor, Baker admitted. Never mind the spring in his step as he approaches his eighth decade, Baker acknowledges that every major league manager, no matter how successful, eventually gives way to Father Time and someone viewed as younger, smarter and just as eager. But age isn’t always just a number.
“People put too much credence on age,” Baker said. “A lot of my friends are musicians and most of them have young musicians tutoring under them. Instead of the young musicians trying to get them out of there, they trying to hang with them and learn some chords from them while they’re still on this earth and get some knowledge from them.”
Let’s be clear: There’s no indication that Baker is on thin ice. Not by any means. The front office has been impressed with the way he’s engaged veterans and young players alike, and Baker has embraced his renaissance, despite that pesky playoff elimination, courtesy of the Dodgers in the National League Division Series.
“I’ve enjoyed my time here,” he said. “This is probably one of the best stops I’ve had outside of San Francisco, which is home. I really like D.C., I like the surrounding area, I like the people here, I like the educational level here. I liked everything about here, other than sometimes it rained a little too much, the rain delays. But other than that, it was great.”
Still, it’s hard for a lame duck manager to exert much control over a clubhouse, especially when things aren’t going well. And why would the Nationals let things degenerate to that stage when they could erase all doubt and announce that they’ve signed Baker to an extension? For a team constructed to compete in the long term, isn’t the manager just as important as locking up key players to multiyear deals? Considering there’s no one on his current staff who looks like a logical sucessor, and given that there’s no hot property waiting in the minor league wings, wouldn’t that continuity go a long way toward getting 2017 off to a positive start?
Baker thinks he’s got the makings of another division champ that’s good enough to finally get past the first round of the postseason. Even though things didn’t end the way anyone wanted in 2016, he doesn’t see the need for a different approach, other than winning a few more games, preferably in the playoffs.
“You definitely need some luck, but it depends on your health, depends on your personnel, who’s out there,” Baker said. “Injuries are one of the keys in the game, but what’s more important is who is injured when you get in that situation, or who’s hot. Baseball is a game of ones - we’re one hit away, one pitch away, one call away from the umpire.
“I remember watching the Nationals a few years ago and they were one pitch away when (Drew) Storen had the people standing on their feet going crazy because if he had punched out (Yadier) Molina and he kept fouling off pitches, they might have gone to the World Series that year. We were one hit away or sacrifice fly from going this year. We did everything that we could do except get one more. So I don’t see the need to change. We won 95 games and we had three or four guys with years that weren’t indicative of them, you know?”
Sometime between now and mid-February, when the Nationals convene at their new Grapefruit League home, The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla., Baker’s contract status will be settled to the satisfaction of both Baker and the club. I don’t expect the Nats to push him into his walk year with the option of, well, walking away. Not after the curious path that brought Baker to D.C.
Baker sounds like he’s already thinking in the long term. He definitely doesn’t sound like someone who expects to be out of a job after the 2017 season.
“It’s in the process. You can’t do everything in just one year,” he said. “So this year, I think we will be better - better with our staff, be better with the team. They know me, I know them, you know? Like I had heard about certain guys, they had heard about me from other guys, but now we know each other. I think being familiar with each other will translate into even better performance.”
And Baker feels like he’s still got plenty to give. Especially in terms of his baseball acumen.
“If they’re all young, who is teaching who? You know what I mean? And if they’re all old, who is learning from whom?” Baker said. “Therefore, we need both age and wisdom and knowledge, and we need youth and energy.”