VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – “Do you think you’ve ended up spoiling the teams you’ve managed previously?”, MAS asked Dusty Baker, during a pregame chat with the Washington Nationals first-year skipper.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Dusty, in polite disagreement with such a notion.
“I don’t think I’ve spoiled my players, they’ve always played hard for me and. . .”
MAS had to cut Baker off.
Dusty had failed to catch MAS’s convoluted complimentary drift.
MAS then explained that he was referring to the MLB organizations Baker had worked for, NOT his players.
At each of his three prior managing stops, it seemed Dusty had been a victim of his own success.
Baker had turned three also-rans into a division or league titlist, only to eventually receive a pink slip for failing to “win it all.”
“Yeah, I guess I HAVE spoiled the organizations and the fans,” Dusty said, nodding in agreement. “Unless you win it all, you can’t really satisfy people.”
“I think what happens is some organizations start believing their own press and start thinking ‘We’ve got a great club, we should be better,’ “Baker offered. “But what they REALLY have is a good club.”
The first spoilage situation transpired in 2002, when Baker had the San Francisco Giants two outs away from their first World Series title since 1954.
That SAME winter — poof! — Dusty was vapor.
A year later, on Chicago’s North Side, he took the woebegotten Cubs to within a Steve Bartman fan interference of their first Series appearance in 58 years.
Three seasons later, the axe again fell.
And finally, he ended a 14-year Cincinnati postseason drought by leading the Reds to a playoff berth in 2010 — and two more after that.
Not good enough; after his third playoff exit, he was immediately fired. (Cincy hasn’t been back to the postseason since).
Turns out, at each place Dusty had created a monster that he had to keep feeding greater success to.
When that didn’t happen, he was gone.
Tsk, tsk, how quickly they forget.
This spring, Dusty Baker was once more tasked with rescuing a ballclub in disarray.
The Nationals hired him in hopes his steady hand would enable its talented but underachieving ballclub to be all it can be.
In 2015, the dysfunctional Nats had failed to reach the postseason after beginning the campaign as a World Series favorite.
Clubhouse turmoil, dugout dust-ups, underperformance and injuries galore had combined to dash the team’s high hopes.
Once again, however, it’s been Dusty to the rescue.
For most of this season, Washington has led the National League East by a bunch and is about to clinch the division title.
“It’s exciting, I’m glad to be back,” Dusty said of his return to managing and his current ballclub’s success. “What makes it delightful is that not only are they good players but they’re good guys also, guys that have the same goals and determination to win that I do.”
Dusty realizes the cupboard wasn’t exactly left bare for him in D.C.
“I talked to Al Attles (former Golden State Warriors player and coach, a Bay Area Baker buddy) and he said, ‘Dusty, you’re used to doing more with less’; now that I’m here, I want to do more with more.”
So, what’s Dusty’s secret to getting more from less/more?
“I just tell the guys ‘Have a good time but work hard when you’re out here,’ “revealed Dusty.
” ‘Be on time, be where you’re supposed to be and take care of bid’ness.’ “
His new charges are obviously buying into what Dusty’s selling.
Baker’s message is simple and straightforward, says super sub Stephen Drew.
“He tells us ‘Be professional every day,’ ” Drew told MAS.
“It’s all about winning,” added slugging first sacker Ryan Zimmerman. “Doesn’t matter if we have a guy hit a home run or lay down a bunt, everyone’s gotta be willing to sacrifice.”
“I think it’s a great message,” he added. “Just win the game.”
But not every tenet of Baker Ball is so simplistic. Dusty is not one to always go by baseball’s time-honored, unwritten “book” on how the game should be played.
Baker has been a contrarian on more than one occasion, sometimes leading to criticism of his tactics.
For example, the notion that you should always play your weakest defensive outfielder in left field (primarily because of the shorter throw to second and third base).
“Balls hit to left field and right field usually slice,” offered Baker. “So, for right-handed throwers, you are mostly going to your backhand and it’s actually a more difficult play making the throw to a base.
“I try to put lefties in left whenever possible, so they can use their forehand.”
Dusty’s managing by his own specific feel-for-the-game combined with his veteran presence has helped put the Nats back on top in the NL East and the city of Washington in a position to host its first World Series in 92 years.
So, you can now forget the old saying, “Washington: First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”
(In fact, these days that historic adage has been turned completely upside down.)
Once again, Dusty Baker has fulfilled an organization’s mandate. He has gotten the most out of the well-balanced outfit he inherited.
The Nats are solid on offense led by Daniel Murphy, presently the owner of the second-best batting average in the big leagues, .348, and Bryce Harper, at just 23, already one of the game’s most feared sluggers.
But it is the Nats pitching depth that could end up propelling the Montreal Expos/Nats franchise to its first-ever World Series appearance.
Their 3.44 team ERA is second only to the Chicago Cubs (3.11) in all of MLB.
For Dusty, such a Series would be different from his experience in ’02 with the Giants versus the Angels.
He will be minus the services of his batboy, son Darren.
Surely you remember the then-3-year-old tyke being yanked to safety by Giants’ on-deck hitter J.T. Snow as the cute l’il squirt was trying to retrieve a bat near home plate just as a runner and a throw to the catcher were arriving.
“He just graduated from high school and is at Cal-Berkeley on a baseball scholarship,” Dusty proudly revealed to MAS. “He plays shortstop, knows the game and can play some too.”
With a possible World Series looming, if Baker now feels an eerie sense of deja vu all over again, who could blame him?
Should the Nationals not go “all the way,” will lightning strike not once, twice or thrice but for a FOURTH time?
Would Washington dare dismiss Dusty yet again — either now or later?
If they do, it will be further proof that the behavior of MLB front offices and petulant, ungrateful children is often the same.
One thing’s for sure, If MAS must once more broach that topic with Baker, he’ll remember to follow the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Contact MAS at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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