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Dusty Baker finds a new crisis to manage in Houston

Dusty Baker finds a new crisis to manage in Houston

Let’s head to Las Vegas for odds on this: recent World Series champion caught in a cheating scandal shares spring training facility with current World Series champion, which defeated the cheating champions to gain their championship. Got that?

Now add this: former manager of current World Series champion, who was in charge when said spring training facility opened, and was not retained after not winning a championship, is suddenly in charge of the cheating champions. 

Odds? Are there enough zeroes? 

Dusty Baker will manage the Houston Astros in 2020. He is not one for subtlety or fear, walking the party line or averse to barking caught-on-camera swear words from the dugout which get him in trouble with his mother. Baker is a storyteller, self-backer, compelling figure, smart, has moxy and is just a step from the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s convinced a World Series title as a manager will get him there. 

Mixing Baker with Houston’s current situation is an epic dice roll by a suddenly unmoored organization. Astros owner Jim Crane swept out manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow following suspensions from Major League Baseball. His players remain under scrutiny for the sign-stealing fiasco. The Dodgers feel cheated, opposing pitchers are irritated, fans are scratching their heads. It’s a mess which will not soon subside.

Enter Baker’s swashbuckling approach. He’s an enthralling combination of an extrovert raised under military rules. Recall his pirouette when he pulled on his Nationals jersey at the introductory press conference. He gave away wine and myriad other swag items from his often boisterous office during his two seasons. Baker would laugh, tell stories, chomp on his toothpick. Things were loose. But, be late? That was the easiest way to draw his ire.

Baker is 70 years old. He will aggravate the Astros’ analytics machine to a degree. He will tell the team everyone else can go to hell. Outsiders don’t matter. Only they do. Ignore everything else. This would be Baker’s message -- he’s felt slighted for decades and still uses it for fuel -- no matter the situation. It’s all the more apt in the middle of these licking flames.

He is prepared for the coming circus. One of Baker’s main talents is managing chaos. Baker’s juggling ability is honed by entrance into the spotlight as a black teenager playing in the south in the late 1960s alongside Hank Aaron. He played in the World Series -- twice -- before managing one of the game’s most divisive figures and grumpy talents, Barry Bonds, then moving on to the cauldron of despair known as Wrigley Field. The Bartman incident, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior; the narratives which built bad blood then chased Baker out of town. Don’t forget Stephen Strasburg’s “Moldgate” in the 2017 playoffs. He eats turmoil for breakfast. Has for years. Some more only fills a currently empty stomach.

Baker is even deeply schooled in baseball’s history in the West Palm Beach area. Hank Aaron Drive is not far from the teams’ shared facility. Baker would fish the nearby lakes when he briefly played for the West Palm Beach Braves in 1968. 

The spring training facility was not finished when he first entered it. Multiple ceiling panels were missing in the clubhouse, walls were blank and the nameplate for his office was hand-written.

The year before, in the dilapidated Viera facility, Baker was rapidly getting up to speed the day he was asked about Wilmer Difo’s whereabouts. Difo, a free spirit and Dominican Republic native, was yet to show up in West Palm Beach. All other players had. It was possible he had a visa problem and would not be the first to do so.

“I don’t know no Dipo,” Baker said to reporters. “Point him out when you see him.”

Baker will call reporters into his office for chats. Or keep them longer after an arranged interview. At times, his winding pregame stories are a bounty on an otherwise slow day. Others, he’ll walk into the press conference still in street clothes, looking to get the talk over with. His relationship with the media will be one to watch in message-desperate Houston. Baker once stopped a Washington reporter postgame, while Baker was half in uniform and half out, to say, “You know what you’re doing.” It’s the kind of person-to-person interactions he feels are in his purview as a Baseball Man for the last 50 years. They will make Astros PR squirm.

What this will not be is dull, which also doubles as the core of Houston’s risk. The Astros would like to muffle the noise, not amplify it. Baker turns lights up. He sees them, wraps his arms around them, succeeds and fails in them, never shies from them. In this case, he’s made an unlikely scenario all the more improbable. Buckle up.

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Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

Kurt Suzuki finds himself in surprising spot of headline maker

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Kurt Suzuki will turn 37 years old while in a major-league uniform if the Nationals play October baseball again this season. This is year 14 and the second stop with one of four teams he’s played for. Suzuki spent time in the American League,
 then the National League, then back to the AL before a return to the NL. He’s well-traveled.

Which makes the headlines cooking with his name all the stranger to him. Following comments to The Washington Post that the Houston Astros were using a whistling system to steal signs in the 2019 World Series, Suzuki’s name was hurled to the front of the cross-player sniping currently pervasive in Major League Baseball. Houston’s Carlos Correa transitioned to specifically talk about Suzuki on Saturday when he rumbled through a session with Astros writers. Sunday, Suzuki conducted his own group session, something he was partly in disbelief about, and something he doesn’t want to keep occurring. 

“Honestly, I’m too old to get in the middle,” Suzuki said. “I really don’t associate myself with this kind of stuff. I just kind of go about my business and try to stay out of everything and get ready to play baseball. That’s what it’s about -- playing baseball.”

Suzuki’s steady answers Sunday inside the Nationals’ clubhouse focused on two ideas: he’s enjoying the World Series and preparing for 2020. Suzuki stopped short of saying “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” but that was the general tenor after he politely agreed to talk with reporters despite being self-aware enough to realize the topic.

“I thought you guys were going to talk about the 1-for-20 in the World Series,” Suzuki joked.

He made the same joke with teammates before heading to meet the media. He was asked where that “one” landed.

“Train tracks.”

Suzuki joined Yan Gomes, pitching coach Paul Menhart, Davey Martinez and others in devising a multi-tiered system to protect signs against the Astros in the World Series. Suzuki did not say Sunday he knew the Astros were cheating in the World Series. 

“You hear stuff around the league,” Suzuki said. “All you do is you do your due diligence and you try to prepare yourself to not get into that situation. We just did our homework on our end and did everything we possibly can to combat the rumors going around and we just prepared ourselves. That was the bottom line: just getting ready for it if it did happen.”

His session of diffusement ended with a nod to Max Scherzer’s comments from when spring training began. Scherzer bounced back questions about the Astros by advising reporters to go talk to them. 

“That’s their situation,” Suzuki said. “I think Scherzer said it best. They are the ones that have to do the answering. We’re just getting ready for the 2020 season to defend the title. That’s it. We’re getting ready, enjoying our teammates, enjoying the World Series and getting ready for the season.”

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Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

Everyone notices when Victor Robles arrives at spring training

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The double doors from the field into the Nationals clubhouse pushed open Saturday morning, and in strode Victor Robles.

He was dressed mostly in black, his preferred thin hoodie up over his head, big gold watch on his wrist, and general mojo bursting about. Robles made announcements in Spanish and English. He provided hugs for most. Not long after walking in, he ended up in one of his common reclining positions, this one inside a mobile laundry basket, folded like an overgrown kid in a shopping cart. Robles laying on the floor with his legs on a folding chair while burning through his phone will come later.

The clubhouse was sparsely populated upon his arrival Saturday. He ventured down the freshly-painted hall and ended up in the manager’s office, previously existing as a serene setting. Music drifted out of the open door. A green candle passively burned. Davey Martinez, once again able to drink coffee thanks to a clean bill of health, was doing some reading.

“He just came in really loud,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘What are you doing here? I’m not supposed to see you until Monday. Come back Monday.’”

And an addition: “I love him.”

Robles was the Saturday jolt in West Palm Beach on an otherwise bleak day. Rain romped through in varied bursts. The workout was cut short, everyone packed and Washington’s side of the spring training complex receded peacefully into the afternoon after the pitchers threw. Meanwhile, their fellow residents at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches continued to tussle with the world at large.

Amid the rain, Robles wandered out to the batting cages with two bats in hand and wearing a T-shirt he manually removed the sleeves from. One of the questions -- of the few in what is a stable camp with limited open spots and decisions -- is what kind of growth will come from Robles.

Will he step forward on offense, helping to mitigate the offensive production loss from Anthony Rendon’s departure? Will he move up in the lineup if he’s more disciplined at the plate? Where is his offensive ceiling a year after he became a Gold Glove finalist in center field?

The defense is there. Robles pushed aside much of the rawness he dealt with early in the season to become one of the league’s best defensive outfielders. His lack of experience coupled with determination to run into anything in his way caused specific concern among the Nationals’ coaching staff when the team went to Wrigley Field for the first time. The message to Robles about playing in Wrigley? “The wall is brick. You will lose.”

But, this is how Robles does things; he's living an upbeat baseball life destined to crash into the ground, a pitch, the middle of chaos. His approach also influences his plate performance. Robles swings often -- almost 49 percent of the time last season -- and is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone 31.9 percent of the time. For a comparison point: Juan Soto left the zone on 23.4 percent of his swings and swings 40.8 percent of the time overall.

“If you look at Vic’s numbers in the minor leagues, his on-base percentage was actually pretty good,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to get him -- we want him to be aggressive in the strike zone and stay within himself. That’s something we talked to him last year when he left and I know that [Kevin] Long is going to harp on it this year. Be aggressive in the strike zone, take your walks.”

Robles stole 28 bases last season despite a walk percentage of 5.7 and on-base percentage of just .326. He struck out almost four times as much as he walked.

So, the room for growth exists. The need for improvement also exists because Rendon left and the gap needs to be closed somewhere. How Robles will get there is among the spring training questions. Whether he will be heard from is not.

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