Had the Nationals simply hired Dusty Baker all along, had they picked him over Bud Black last week and agreed to contract terms, few eyebrows would have been raised. It would have been viewed both here in town and throughout the baseball world as a solid choice, a proven and successful manager taking the reins of a club that despite its obvious issues remains positioned to win in both the short- and long-term.
Hiring Baker isn’t the problem. The process by which he was hired is the problem.
For all the progress they’ve made in their near-decade owning the Nationals, members of the Lerner family have yet to fully grasp the importance of managerial job security. We’ve seen this play out far too many times over the years.
Since the Lerners purchased the franchise from Major League Baseball in 2006, they have given no manager a contract that includes more than two guaranteed years.
Manny Acta got two years with a club option. That option was picked up after Acta guided a slapped-together roster to an encouraging 73-win season in 2007, but he still wound up getting fired during the 2009 All-Star break with his team on pace to lose 100 games and his players having given up on him.
Jim Riggleman was hired as Acta’s replacement on an interim basis, then agreed to a series of 1-year deals that left the veteran skipper on thin ice throughout his tenure. When Riggleman, in June 2011, asked general manager Mike Rizzo to discuss picking up his option for 2012 and the front office said no, he stunningly resigned minutes after leading his team to its 10th win in 11 games, then explained how nervous he was signing his initial deal given the lack of long-term security.
“I made it very clear that, you know, I can’t say no to this, but this is a bad contract for a manager,” Riggleman said after quitting. “There’s no option for Jim Riggleman. It’s a one-year option that the club decides on. That’s not a good way to do business. I made it very clear that I didn’t like that. But you know I can’t say no to it. So there I am. And two years later, I’m realizing: You know what? I was right. It’s not a good way to do business.”
Faced with the prospect of their franchise falling into disarray, the Nationals managed to pull off a brilliant move, coaxing Davey Johnson out of retirement to take over midseason and retain the job over the winter. It worked perfectly, with a re-energized Johnson leading the young Nats to their first-ever division title in 2012, but then it all came crashing down the following season.
The Nationals, concerned both about the aging Johnson’s physical and mental strength and his desire to be paid commensurate with MLB’s top managers, announced up front that 2013 would be his final season in the dugout, retaining him beyond that only as a consultant. Their manager now a lame duck who seemed to lose interest as the summer wore on, the Nats (World Series favorites) underachieved and missed the playoffs altogether.
Needing to hire yet another manager — already his third in his first four years as GM — Rizzo went with someone he knew and trusted, but someone with barely any experience. Matt Williams, like fellow first-time manager Acta back in 2007, was given a 2-year contract (with a pair of 1-year options) that made him one of the sport’s lowest-paid skippers. Williams guided the Nationals to a division title, won NL Manager of the Year honors and had his 2016 option picked up … only to be fired after a disastrous 2015 season that included an 83-79 record, a litany of on-field mistakes and then clubhouse discord.
And so here they were yet again, Rizzo and the Lerner family, seeking the franchise’s sixth manager in 11 seasons in the District, none of the previous men having held the job more than 2 1/2 years. Rizzo said at the outset he wanted someone with experience, and the two candidates who emerged as finalists most certainly had that.
Black had managed the Padres for 8 1/2 years. His teams didn’t win much and never made the playoffs, but consensus opinion around baseball was that the record was more a reflection of a low payroll and an ever-changing front office than of his job skills. The fact Black was a former pitcher and pitching coach, and the fact at 58 he could be viewed as a potential long-term answer, made him a strong candidate and ultimately prompted the Nationals to inform him he was their choice, according to a source familiar with the decision.
Given his level of experience, Black likely assumed he would get a decent level of job security, probably three guaranteed years. The Lerners, sticking to the same philosophy they’ve used throughout their ownership, wouldn’t do that.
So the deal blew up in everyone’s faces, and the Nationals turned their attention back to Baker, who had impressed members of the front office throughout the process. Baker, who desperately wanted this job two years ago after he was fired by the Reds but never got an interview, was willing to accept whatever offer in the end was presented to him. (The Nats have said only that he signed a “multi-year contract” without specifying exact years or financial terms.)
At 66, Baker probably isn’t positioned to hold this job for the long-term. The Mets’ Terry Collins, born 19 days earlier in 1949, is the only current MLB manager who is older. But that doesn’t make this is a bad hire.
Baker’s track record is about as strong as they get. Twenty seasons as a big-league manager. One thousand six hundred seventy-one wins, 17th-most in baseball history. Seven postseason appearances with three different franchises. Three NL Manager of the Year Awards. One NL pennant.
Players overwhelmingly adore Baker, who will walk into the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium in February and immediately command the respect of the room. He’ll also be a welcome addition to the community, baseball’s lone African-American manager now calling the District of Columbia home.
Which isn’t to say Baker doesn’t have his flaws. He rubbed some in Cincinnati the wrong way with his game strategy (a strong proponent of the sacrifice bunt) and lineup construction (a tendency for No. 2 hitters with low on-base percentages). He has been criticized in the past for overusing young pitchers, though it’s debatable how much (if any) long-term damage he caused as a result.
But overall, there’s not a lot of valid criticism to offer of this hire. Baker is a supremely qualified manager with a long track record of on-field success and off-field relationships.
Of course, Black was just as qualified for the job. Some members of the organization obviously felt he was more qualified, only to discover he valued himself more than they valued him.
The Nationals, in the end, may have wound up with the right man for the job. Whether they’ve truly learned anything about how to conduct business and how to give a good manager the job security he needs remains the great unknown.
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