It looked like it might be the end of the road for Dusty Baker back in 2013 when he was unexpectedly fired as manager of the Cincinnati Reds after ending the season with six losses in a row, including the wild-card playoff game.
Being that he was 63 years old at the time, most cats thought that Baker would ride off into the sunset as a respected skipper who undoubtedly could coach with the best of them, but couldn’t quite get over the championship hurdle.
In fact, when I saw Dusty at a Youth Baseball Tournament at the Baseball Heaven facility in Yaphank, Long Island last summer, after exchanging pleasantries, I asked the three-time NL Manager of the Year if he had any intentions of returning to an MLB bench. He smiled and shook his head and said, “I’m not even thinking about that right now.”
He seemed to be having a tremendous time inspiring baby ballers and enjoying his post-managerial career as a baseball ambassador.
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He was obviously fronting harder than two day old feces because on November 3, 2015, Baker was named the new manager for the Washington Nationals for the 2016 season, his first managerial position since being unceremoniously axed.
Baker’s hiring was important for several reasons because at the time, he was the only African-American skipper in the entire sport. Also, the Nationals underachieved last season, finishing with an unimpressive 83-79 record after entering the campaign with legitimate championship dreams. The team needed an experienced, proven, guaranteed winner to navigate them through the peaks and valley's of a grueling 162-game season.
Fast forward to 2016.
With a bevy of talent on both sides of the ball, MVP Bryce Harper leading the lineup and 20 K– Killer Max Scherzer as the ace of a plentiful pitching staff -- but most importantly Baker’s experience, communication skills and controversial yet successful old school approach -- the Nationals (49-32) are in first place in the National League East, leading the defending NL Champ New York Mets by six games as we head towards the All-Star break.
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The Nats are healthier this season and added a few reinforcements over the summer, but Baker’s bench savvy is the reason why the MLB community considers them official contenders for the World Series crown.
“I don’t know why I do stuff sometimes,” Baker said after collecting his 1,700th career win in May. “Sometimes I go by the numbers. Sometimes I go on what I feel. Sometimes I go on what I hope.”
The Nats are hoping Baker’s long-standing recipe for success results in the first championship in franchise history. Believe it or not, it would also be the first title in Baker’s illustrious coaching career.
Despite being 17th in wins on the all-time coaching list, leading the Cincinnati Reds to their greatest stretch of consistent winning since The Big Red Machine (509-463 in his six seasons) and finishing third on the Reds' list for wins by a manager behind legendary skipper Sparky Anderson (863), Baker was booted for failing to get past the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season.
A baseball lifer who entered MLB in 1968 as an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves and went on to become a two-time All-star and World Series champ, Baker followed up his playing career by successfully managing the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Reds.
While credited with turning every franchise he ever managed into winners, he failed to win it all, coming closest in 2002 with San Fran, who beat the Braves and the Cardinals before losing to the Angels in a seven-game World Series.
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He wasn't allowed to finish the job he started with Cincy, but he continues to remind the last-place Reds of just how stupid a move it was to let one of baseball's all-time great motivators go.
The Nationals defeated the Reds 3-2 in 14 innings on Friday night on outfielder Ben Revere’s first career walk off hit. The win was the Nationals’ sixth straight and 81 games into the season, the team has the second best record at the halfway point in franchise history.
When GM Mike Rizzo hired the wily veteran to navigate the Nats through the season and infuse a consistent winning culture into the squad, he knew what he was doing. It was a gut feeling based on the fact that Baker is one of the greatest minds in the game. And sabermetrics aside, he flat out knows how to get W’s.
Said shortstop Danny Espinosa: “Having Dusty is kind of like having your dad...coach your team. It’s pretty cool. He’s just behind all of his guys. So to have him behind me, supporting me to go out there everyday knowing that he wants me out there is a great feeling.”
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It’s also a great feeling to see a brother in a leadership position, continuing to keep traditional baseball theories and managerial approaches alive, proving that numbers are important in baseball, but pedigree can’t be created by a computer or mathematical formula. It’s something that comes from years of hard work, experience and understanding the game on every level.
And when Old Man Baker is at the helm, his team always has a chance to win.