Former Washington Nationals outfielder Jerry Hairston played for both Bud Black and Dusty Baker, and had nothing but praise for both men. But he revealed that in Cincinnati, Baker’s last job before being fired in 2013, the players there still miss Baker.
“I just got done talking to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce,” Hairston told me last week. “I asked them, ‘What’s going on with you guys in Cincinnati? They said, ‘Jerry, we miss our captain. We miss Dusty Baker.’”
There you go — former star Cincinnati Reds players, real flesh and blood, not stats spit out by a computer program — testifying for Baker, two years removed from the job. Since the Reds fired Baker, under manager Bryan Price, they’ve had two losing seasons and are 140-184.
Now, through a strange turns of events, Baker will get a chance to build those same relationships in the Washington Nationals clubhouse as their new manager — even though some would have you believe that relationships don’t matter in baseball in 2015.
I guess the Lerners agreed with me when I wrote Monday that it seemed bizarre that Baker would be passed over for Black for the Nationals’ managing job.
Who knows why they shifted gears after the news was out that Black, the former San Diego Padres manager, was the new Nationals skipper? Maybe Black, who reportedly was upset at the team offer of $1.6 million for a one-year deal, insulted Ted Lerner somehow when his displeasure leaked out.
Maybe it was some sort of bargaining attempt in their talks with Baker, who made $4 million a year in his last job in Cincinnati, and they wanted him all along?
“We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” Lerner said in a statement issued by the team. “During our broad search process we met with many qualified candidates, and ultimately it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”
General manager Mike Rizzo, in the same team statement, said he was all on board with Baker as manager.
“I am so pleased to welcome Dusty Baker to the Nationals family,” Rizzo said. “In getting to know Dusty and identifying what we wanted in the next on-field leader of our team, we are excited to have him on board. Dusty’s experience, as a winning player, coach, and manager, is vast and varied. We are excited to bring him to Washington and put his steady demeanor, knowledge and many years in the game to work in our favor. I think I speak for the entire organization when I say I am very much looking forward to working with him.”
Baker reportedly will get a two-year contract. He made $4 million a year in Cincinnati after receiving a two-year extension after the 2012 season, but was fired after 2013, leaving the Reds to pay that second year of his deal. It’s just like how the Nationals are paying Matt Williams an estimated $1 million for 2016 to sit at home during the option year of his deal they had agreed to pick up last year.
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If the Lerners are paying Baker real money, that is a departure from their usual business practice. They don’t like to pay managers. The total amount they paid Nationals managers from 2007 to 2012 is less than what Baker made for one year in Cincinnati. They agreed to pay Davey Johnson $4 million in 2013 — essentially matching what Baker made with the Reds — but for only one year.
Whatever the reason, I think they made a good decision, albeit in an awkward, dysfunctional way. Contrary to the keyboard mob out there that has determined Baker is a bad manager, he is just the opposite — a good manager who has won everywhere he has been and has the respect and admiration of his players.
Baker, 66, has managed for three different organizations over his 20 years as a major league manager — the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and the Reds — and compiled a winning record over that time of 1,671-1,504, with five division titles and one National League pennant. He has more managing wins than Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver and Davey Johnson.
Hairston, who played for nine different managers over his 16-year major league career, said Baker is one of the smartest he ever played for.
“He is so intelligent,” Hairston said. “I would go into Dusty’s office and just sit and learn from him. Dusty and Buck Showalter were the two most prepared managers I was ever around.
“Look how bad the Reds have been since they got rid of Dusty,” Hairston said. “They miss him. He would be in that dugout, getting them fired up. He would bring them together. I saw it first hand. He would get them to believe as a team. You can’t fake it in the major leagues.
“Once you are a manager, you can’t fake leadership. Guys like Dusty Baker and Bud Black, they are genuine, and guys buy in,” Hairston said. “There is a reason that the Giants went to the World Series with Dusty. There is a reason why the Cubs went from nothing to a playoff team. When Dusty went to Cincinnati, everyone was laughing at him, ‘Why are you going to Cincinnati? They are so bad.’ Well, he made them into a playoff team. He gets 25 guys to buy in.
“It’s great to have stats and analytics,” Hairston said. “But no matter what, you want guys who are grinders, who are baseball players, and managers who bring those guys together. It’s good to have information. But then the most important thing, you want to see what kind of guys they are.”
It will be interesting to see how the mob in Washington, which ridiculed Matt Williams mercilessly — and many of whom had already expressed their displeasure courageously on social media for Baker as a candidate for the job — will react when Baker doesn’t follow their managing book.
Will they be just as vicious in their attacks? If it gets too ugly — Williams ugly — will there be questions raised about such sometimes personal criticism against the only African-American manager in the game?
Baker was run out of Cincinnati by an angry fan base despite a 90-win, third-place finish in the NL Central.
“The Reds have fired Dusty Baker.” Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wrote in October 2013. “You could argue the fairness in that, given the success Baker has had in his six years here. What you can’t debate is that fan dissatisfaction and ownership restlessness made the move mandatory.”
Cincinnati, though, is not Washington.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.