Clint Robinson figures he was 6 or 7 years old when his father bought him a yellow-covered book, “You Can Teach Hitting.” The author, Dusty Baker, is leaning on a bat and tossing a baseball on the center of the cover. The book comes with assurances from Hank Aaron that Baker knows what he is talking about.
“Dusty Baker was a natural hitter and is a good communicator. I highly recommend this book as a teaching aid for players of all age groups,” Aaron is quoted as saying.
So, when Robinson, a Washington Nationals first baseman and forced-into-duty outfielder, learned Baker would be his new manager, he posted a photo of the book on Twitter. He remembers it telling him to stand pigeon-toed — feet turned in, toes pointing at each other — in the batter’s box.
“I don’t do that anymore,” Robinson said Sunday.
This is how it is with Baker, an ubiquitous personality. During the weekend at Nationals Winterfest, several players met their new manager for the first time. Most had asked around about him. Many had stories about random encounters with Baker. Starter Joe Ross met Baker in a restaurant three years ago. Fellow starter Stephen Strasburg took a tour of ESPN when he was a freshman at San Diego State. There, he met Baker.
“I don’t think it was a memorable experience for him,” Strasburg said.
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During the first week Baker has been publicly unleashed as the Nationals’ new manager, he has shown a tact opposite that of former manager Matt Williams. At times, this has already caused a stir for Baker. His comments at last week’s Winter Meetings about domestic violence, and a line of thought that associated foot speed with race, were head-scratching.
Other times, Baker’s ability to relate to so many on multiple levels has brought smiles and hope. He talked to reliever Blake Treinen about hunting and fishing, neither of which, Treinen points out, the pitcher is good at. They also chatted about wine. Baker owns a winery. Treinen recently moved to Walla Walla, Washington, where the Yakima Valley and persistent moisture prove fertile for the wine business.
Gone is Williams’ stoicism. Baker, the name-dropper, the storyteller, the swashbuckler, has stepped into the Nationals’ button-downed environment with polished shoes and a new tune. What has become clear is that his time in Washington will cause a fervor, for better or worse.
Infielder Danny Espinosa had asked players in the past what they thought of Baker. He received positive responses. Some of the young relief pitchers put together a group effort to find out more about Baker. Third baseman Anthony Rendon had more than just a passing chat with Baker at the weekend-long fan event. Rendon spent Thursday night with Baker at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Ward 7.
“He had a story for everything,” Rendon said. “[Executive director] Tal Alter, he runs the academy, he would name somebody’s or he had interaction with somebody else in another state and Dusty would be like, ‘Yeah, I know that guy, we did this that or this that together.’ I was like, ‘This dude has a story for every single person.’ So, you know he’s been around the block.”
Ryan Zimmerman is not thrown by meeting a new manager. Seven different managers, six full-time, have been in charge of the Nationals since Zimmerman entered the major leagues in 2005. Frank Robinson brought a hitter’s pedigree. Davey Johnson had experience. Williams was new. Baker has both playing and managing success from which to draw.
“Every manager is different,” Zimmerman said. “Every third base coach is different. Every player is different. I don’t think any one person’s personality really shapes the clubhouse. I’ve respected every manager that I’ve had. I would never want to be in their shoes. I think it’s one of the toughest jobs to have in sports, but it will be fun to see how Dusty is different than all the other ones I’ve had.”
Baker is the first to have to explain what he meant about two sensitive topics just a week into the job. At the winter meetings, Baker said the team needed more speed, and could look to minorities for it.
“You’ve got a better chance of getting some speed with Latin- and African-Americans,” Baker said.
He also said positive things about Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, who is being investigated by Major League Baseball after a police report alleging domestic violence by Chapman surfaced. According to the report, Chapman fired a gun in his garage following an argument with his girlfriend and also “choked” her. No charges were filed. Chapman’s agent has denied the allegations.
“I heard it from my son,” Baker said last week. “I mean, who’s to say the allegations are true, No. 1? And who’s to say what you would have done or what caused the problem?”
A Nationals spokesperson attempted a clarification of Baker’s words about Chapman on Twitter, saying Baker never condones domestic violence. Baker explained further over the weekend.
“Certainly that wasn’t my intent, if you know me,” Baker said. “If you know me, you know my family background, you know my history and also I could have clarified it a little better, especially in the the domestic violence situation.
“It was fresh on my mind that Father’s Day about Darryl Hamilton, that I carry him in my heart and my briefcase every day because … to give that eulogy and see his sons crying, that really touched me. That’s why I didn’t want to go too deep into what I was saying because I’ve seen it first hand. That’s OK. I’m a big person. My conscience and my heart is clear and I know what my intent is and anybody who knows me, they can speak for me or just let it be.”
Hamilton was killed in August. Police ruled his death a murder-suicide. He was found shot to death. His girlfriend was found in a separate room, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Baker’s voice softened when he explained. Later, he settled in for autograph duty, sitting next to new Nationals reliever Trevor Gott. After a few words, Gott chuckled. He now had a Baker story and an introduction to a manager that has been involved in so much, for so long, with only more set to come.