WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Dusty Baker stood near one of the practice fields outside FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Thursday morning, wearing an Astros cap and pullover, answering questions about the team he now manages. He looked very much at home, very much in his element.
The 70-year-old baseball lifer has done everything there is to do in this sport, and yet he has now found perhaps the ultimate challenge of his career: guiding a Houston roster loaded with talent but stained by proof they cheated while winning the World Series three seasons ago into uncharted waters.
And that treacherous path to redemption begins tonight with his new team’s exhibition opener. Which just happens to come against the team that let him go days before the Astros won their tainted title, the team that proceeded to beat the Astros for its first championship last October under a different manager.
So as Baker tries to focus on the team he now manages, he can’t help but at least think about the team he used to manage, the one that trains only 1,000 feet away on the other side of this sprawling complex.
Is Baker looking forward to seeing the Nationals tonight?
“I left my heart over there when I left,” he said. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing them.”
The feeling is mutual. Though nobody inside the Nats clubhouse would suggest they’re dissatisfied with the job Davey Martinez has done since taking over - considering all those championship signs that have been going up all week around here, how could they? - those who remain from Baker’s 2016-17 teams genuinely miss him and are thrilled for his new opportunity.
“Obviously, all of us think highly of Dusty,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who has played for all seven managers the Nationals have employed over the last decade and a half. “What he’s done in the game as a player and manager, I was happy for him. I really, really liked him and had fun with him. He’s a really good baseball guy.”
Baker has maintained relationships with Nationals players and other club employees throughout the last 2 1/2 years. He’d sit at home in Sacramento and tune into games. He commiserated with them during rough times and celebrated with them during good times, albeit from afar.
“Yeah, I watched them close,” he said. “I watched games every day. And I like watching games. I like seeing progress of some of the players that I’ve known for a while there. It’s really been pretty cool watching them.”
The relationships between Baker and Nationals players are genuine. With as much movement as there is in this sport, there are countless former teammates, coaches and managers to keep up with. Oftentimes, those lead to simple token hellos when crossing paths or a quick text to wish someone well when he signs a new contract.
With Baker, it’s a much deeper relationship. And his former players really appreciate that.
“It definitely meant a lot to me,” said outfielder Michael A. Taylor, who grew especially close to Baker during those two seasons together and has remained close since. “He reached out to me several times over the last few years, just letting me know that he’s there for me. Whether he’s thinking about me, or if I want to talk about something, I think it just speaks to the quality of man he is. It wasn’t like: ‘What can you do for me while I’m the manager and you’re playing for me?’ Those were real relationships that he made here.”
Because of that, Baker of course felt real emotions when he watched the Nationals win the World Series last fall. He twice led them to division titles but twice experienced heart-wrenching Game 5 losses in the National League Division Series. Now those players were getting over the hump at last, then emerging victorious in historic fashion during the World Series.
With someone else managing them.
“I’m sure he’s very proud,” Taylor said. “I know it was tough that he wasn’t here. A part of him wanted to be here, I’m sure. But I know he was excited for us and rooted us on.”
About that. During his Jan. 30 introductory press conference in Houston, Baker claimed he wanted the Astros to win the 2019 World Series: “Don’t tell the Nationals, but I was rooting for this team to beat the Nationals.”
Reminded of that statement Thursday, Baker turned up his eyebrow and smirked: “What am I supposed to say?”
Nationals players and fans know the truth about Baker’s loyalties in late October. They also know his loyalties in late February and beyond have changed.
When both teams take the field tonight for the first time in 2020, there will be smiles and fond memories. Then there will be a ballgame. Exhibition or not, the guy wearing a block H and star on his cap will be trying to beat the guys wearing a curly W on their caps.
“They’re on the other side of the field,” Baker said. “During competition, they’re not an enemy, but we’re in competition. After the game, we go back to being friends again.”