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Dusty Baker, Dave Roberts on being first pair of opposing black managers in postseason

Dusty Baker, Dave Roberts on being first pair of opposing black managers in postseason

On the week that marks the 42nd anniversary of Frank Robinson being hired as Major League Baseball’s first African-American manger, Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts are about to make a different kind of history.    

As the Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers get set for their NL division series on Friday, Baker and Roberts will become the first pair of African-American managers to square off in the postseason. It’s a milestone not lost on both men, especially considering they are MLB’s only black skippers at the moment.  

“I was hoping that it would be [former Texas Rangers manager] Ron Washington and myself in the World Series before,” Baker said after Thursday’s pre-NLDS workout. “I mean, significance is it gives us some pride in being African-American to show people that not only can we do the job, but we can do the job better than most. Especially this year.”

The 67-year-old Baker, who’s in his 20th season leading a big-league team, has been vocal in recent years about baseball’s lack of minority hiring among the managerial ranks. Last November, when it appeared he was out of the running for the Nats job, he expression his frustration. 

“How many teams are willing to accept what we have to offer? We’ve got something to offer,” Baker told the San Francisco Chronicle then. “How much respect do they have for my knowledge and expertise and wisdom over the years? There’s a certain thing called a life experience degree. There used to be.

“I get tired of talking about it. We should be talking about another issue at this point in time. We’re talking about the same thing we were talking about 40 years ago."

Baker, of course, was hired by Washington a few days later. In his first season with the Nats, he led them to a 95-win campaign and their third division title since 2012.

Likewise, Roberts oversaw a Dodgers team that won the NL West for the fourth straight season, doing so in his rookie year as a manager. While he wanted to keep the attention on the series at hand, the 44-year-old also acknowledged the significance of the moment. 

“Obviously, it's important, and it doesn't go unnoticed or underappreciated,” Roberts said. “I think speaking for Dusty, myself, what it means to the game of baseball, to society…I think that when we look back, it’s going to be more special. But I definitely know it's certainly noted, and not to go unappreciated.”

There may be a ways to go before baseball's managerial hires accurately reflect the more diverse demographics among its players. But as clubs with vacancies begin the search for their next clubhouse leaders, Baker hopes the immediate impact that he and Roberts have had on their respective teams may influence some of the sport’s decision makers.

“Hopefully it motivates other organizations to get some African-American managers,” Baker said. “Also to motivate other players that are playing now, and former players that have managerial aspirations. It probably brings a lot of pride across America and not only African-American people, but everybody.”

[MORE: DANIEL MURPHY LOOKING GOOD FOR GAME 1]

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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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