The Washington Nationals introduced new manager Dusty Baker to the media Thursday, and Baker wasted no time explaining why he coveted the chance to take over a star-studded team in the nation’s capital.
He wants another one of those diamond-studded rings, like the one he won in 1981 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, only this time as a manager. It’s really the only thing missing from a terrific baseball career as a player, coach and manager, and Baker has had a couple of near-misses over the years, including a heartbreaking World Series defeat with the Giants in 2002.
“That’s the exact void I want to fill,” he said. “I haven’t missed much in my life. Like I tell people, I signed out of high school. My parents got divorced, so I missed the chance to be a big man on a college campus, and I missed knowing my grandparents because they died before I was born, and the only thing else is winning a championship [as a manager].”
After the made-for-TV news conference was done, Baker’s name-checks of Bill Walsh, Bill Russell, Nelson Mandela, Stevie Wonder and others, after the team’s owners quickly exited the room, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo stood with reporters off to the side and finally offered his version of what happened to the candidacy of Bud Black.
Describing what he called “a unique situation,” Rizzo said the team negotiated contract terms with Black and Baker simultaneously before settling on Baker.
“At the end of the day, it did not come down to money, it did not come down to term,” Rizzo said. “It came down to who were we — meaning the general manager-president of the team and ownership — most comfortable with.”
He said there were nine candidates in all to replace Matt Williams, Rizzo’s hand-picked choice two years ago but fired the day after the 2015 regular season ended with the Nationals out of the playoffs. Baker and Black were the finalists.
“We definitely had financial parameters discussed with [both], at the same time,” Rizzo said, acknowledging that was uncommon.
“We felt that was the best track to go by,” Rizzo said, “because sometimes the negotiating process also tells you a lot about the people that you’re negotiating with. As we discussed baseball in the interview process, and parameters in the financial process, we came to the conclusion that Dusty Baker was the perfect guy for us.”
The Nationals also agreed to terms with pitching coach Mike Maddux — who was present at Nationals Park on Thursday but, like members of the Lerner family that owns the club, did not speak to reporters — and first base coach Davey Lopes. Rizzo said baseball’s career home run leader, Barry Bonds, has not been discussed as a candidate for hitting coach.
Led by Bonds, Baker’s 2002 Giants reached the World Series, and he called winning a championship as a skipper “the exact void I wanted to fill.” Baker reached the postseason seven times total, and with each of his previous teams, including the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, who fired him from his most recent job in 2013.
At 66, he’s now the second-oldest skipper in the majors behind only the Mets’ Terry Collins, and Baker clearly relished every moment Thursday.
When Baker entered the room for the news conference, a series of loud camera clicks greeted his arrival, and he said: “I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
When he pulled a white No. 12 Nationals uniform over his pinstriped gray suit for photos, Baker strutted and twirled a bit and explained, with a smile: “My mom used to be a model.”
When talking about his philosophies of baseball and life, he referenced advice he’d received from folks such as former NBA player and coach Russell and late NFL coach Walsh — “They told me a team has to be close. … Love was the key” — and quoted the late Mandela as saying, “You have to listen as well as talk.”
Baker even noted that Washington is a perfect city for him, because “I do know quite a few politicians — namely from the President, down.”
He is the only black manager currently in the majors, and while Rizzo said that was not a factor in the hiring, Baker himself said: “I feel a sense of responsibility the whole time I’ve been managing, because there haven’t really been many managers of color.”
As for the Nationals, Baker noted: “This is my fourth and final team, and beyond compare, this is the best talent.”
He will have NL MVP front-runner Bryce Harper, for example.
“Hopefully, he can learn from me,” Baker said, “and he might have something he can teach me.”
Asked about the dugout dustup between Harper and Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon — the pitcher grabbed the slugger by the throat during a game, and Williams later said he had no idea exactly what had happened -—Baker said he would take steps to prevent that sort of conflict between teammates from reaching a boiling point.
“You talk about it,” Baker said. “You get it out in the open, and you don’t let things fester.”