WASHINGTON — Just before noon Tuesday, Dusty Baker strolled out of the Nationals Park home dugout and made his rounds during his club’s first workout ahead of its NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
He started in the outfield, chatting with Ryan Zimmerman while the first baseman stretched. Baker ambled toward the infield and spoke to first-base coach Davey Lopes. Then the skipper set up shop behind the batting cage during BP, keeping an eye on his hitters while talking to GM Mike Rizzo.
After sitting out two major league seasons, Baker is back in baseball. He’s also back in the postseason, leading the Nationals to the NL East title in his first year.
“When I was sitting home, I was like, ‘I should be there, because I’m pretty used to going to the playoffs,'” Baker said, resting his cheek on his right hand during a news conference about 75 hours before Washington hosts Game 1 on Friday.
This is his eighth trip to the postseason in 21 years as a manager. Each of his four clubs — the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals — improved its win total in his debut season, including a 12-victory jump in 2016.
Baker was asked Tuesday whether he worried he might not get another shot at managing after the Reds fired him, despite three playoff trips in his last four years.
“I was more bewildered than I was worried, and I wondered if I was on the ‘blacklist’ or not,” Baker said. “Sometimes there’s an unwritten list that sometimes your name is at the top of, being one of the ‘unwanted,’ for whatever reason. Because I was sitting at home, watching guys that hadn’t done what I had done.”
He continued, “That doesn’t happen very often: A guy goes to the playoffs, and all of a sudden he can’t get a job. Or he can’t even get a call back. But that’s OK. I found out who my friends were.”
Baker didn’t just sit around the house.
His daughter got married in his back yard. He spent time with his son. He traveled. He worked on business ventures.
But Baker acknowledged he was “down for about three days.”
“My dad used to tell me, ‘It’s OK to be down. Just don’t stay down.’ And I was like, ‘Man, is that what depression is? I’ve never had depression.’ All I know is, I didn’t like that feeling,” Baker recounted.
Always quick with a quip or a good story, Baker draws high praise for his ability to communicate with players.
His decades of experience as a player and a manager also drew immediate respect in the clubhouse.
“He could have very easily gone into politics,” Lopes, Baker’s teammate for six seasons with the Dodgers, said with a chuckle. “He figures out what makes each player tick.”
Zimmerman figures a manager’s most important task is to handle personalities.
“You have so many coaches and all the scouting and analytics, so the baseball part is taken care of. The best managers are people that keep everyone together, when things are going bad or good,” Zimmerman said. “The biggest thing I like about Dusty is that he’s honest with you, whether it’s good or bad. I’m the kind of guy who — I wasn’t when I was younger, but now that I’m a little bit older — I’d rather just someone tell me, because I’m a big boy. And Dusty does that great. … He doesn’t ever really hold anything in.”
Baker’s 1,766 wins rank 17th in history among MLB managers, ahead of Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog and other Hall of Famers.
He said that as he began climbing the all-time list, he started thinking about the possibility of making it to Cooperstown: “Yeah, I’d like to be the first African-American in the Hall of Fame (as a) manager.”
First things first, though.
Right now, Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker has more tales to tell and more games to win.
Notes: Rizzo confirmed that RHP Stephen Strasburg would not be available for the NLDS but could return if Washington advances. … Baker officially announced RHP Max Scherzer would start Game 1 against LHP Clayton Kershaw. … Nationals 2B Daniel Murphy, who hasn’t started since Sept. 17 because of a strained glute muscle, participated in the workout, taking BP and infield practice, and did extra running afterward. Baker wouldn’t commit to having Murphy in the lineup Friday, saying a “true evaluation” would come no sooner than after Wednesday’s workout. … OF Michael A. Taylor had his left thumb heavily taped — he jammed it on a steal of second base last week — and is “not well,” Baker said.
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