- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 5, 2015

Really, his given name is a better fit. Johnnie B. Baker Jr. That packs the pop representative of a man in a striped gray suit with a gold bracelet relaxing around his right wrist. Someone who shows off his new jersey by swiveling his hips the way he said his model mother used to. A 66-year-old who mentions that he knows a lot of politicians, “from the president down,” in his first press conference. This is a Johnnie B. Baker Jr., winery owner, book author, music addict, name dropper, baseball all-star.

But, the kicking around in the dirt when he was young spawned the nickname “Dusty.” His mom started it, his family maintained it, and his life in baseball has made it a known moniker. So, his white placard Thursday morning read “Dusty Baker.” He sat down behind it, spread his hands flat, and smiled.

Three steps into the always cool press conference room in Nationals Park, it was apparent this was different. Baker walked in as the new Washington Nationals manager, the last person to arrive in a packed room filled with members of the Lerner family, which owns the team, Nationals personnel and a variety of cameras and writers.

A month to the day after firing Matt Williams, Baker pumped up a room and organization that had flatlined. He thoughtfully answered questions about baseball and life philosophy. He zinged his son’s answer to a question about work ethic, explained why he’s a fit in Washington, and relayed an overarching thought: “The hardest thing to do is judge yourself without being too hard on yourself.”

One week ago, Baker did not think he would have this audience. He was convinced that the Nationals were going to hire Bud Black. Baker was so sure the chance had passed, that he expressed his dissatisfaction when he spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 30.

“I just resigned myself to the fact that I had to deal with another disappointment,” Baker said Thursday. “I went on my book tour to Santa Cruz, California, and I was up in the mountains at my author’s house. And there’s a wellness center for people that want to write novels and get away. I said to myself, ‘Well, OK, I’ll just go on and do certain things.’ I was a little bewildered as to why no one had told me I didn’t get the job. I found out later, yeah, now I know why, because they hadn’t made up their mind. You know things leak out. You guys know that, right?

SEE ALSO: SNYDER: Nationals again show dysfunction in process of hiring Dusty Baker

“I didn’t know where that story came from and [general manager] Mike [Rizzo] didn’t know where it came from. I got a very touching call from Mr. [Ted] Lerner. He had told me that I was not out of the running and had a good chance at getting the job.”

Rizzo explained the odd circumstance this way:

“Dusty in our mind was never out of it,” Rizzo said. “We kept in contact with him specifically through our assistant general manager Bob Miller, who had a relationship with him with the Cincinnati Reds for years, so they know each other extremely well. They were in constant contact with each other. Bob was giving the message that I wanted him to give to Dusty, and that we’re still interested, and don’t close the book on us.”

Rizzo said financial terms were discussed with Black, deeming the search process an “unique” situation. He said the decision to hire Baker, and not Black, was not based on finances or contract terms. Rizzo blamed the media for spreading incorrect information.

“When things get leaked out and the media runs with it, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it, other than call each and every one that reported [it and say], ‘I would hold off and not say that,’” Rizzo said.

Baker often watched baseball during the last two seasons, when he was not employed by the sport. His son’s baseball coach tried to get him to run practice, but Baker waved him off. He watched games on TV, and tried to keep the fact that he was not in the game from dampening his days.

“I had sort of turned that part of my brain off to try to hide the emotions from pain,” Baker said. “But, I always followed baseball. I love baseball.”

The lights stirred him Thursday. Baker spoke in a way that drew chuckles and understanding nods. He broke in the front of his new red Nationals cap before pulling it on top of his mostly gray hair. His son, Darren, had advised him the flat-bill look is the thing now. Baker, 66, can’t bring himself to not bend the cap.

His long-held beliefs, called “old-school” when gently termed, are viewed as benefit and detriment. Asked in different ways how he has changed over a managerial career which started in 1993, Baker, a three-time National League manager of the year, would not bite.

“I was pretty good before, I thought,” Baker said. “Adaptation is no problem for me because my friends call me a chameleon, because they think I can adapt any place, anytime, anywhere. And, so, I would like to think I transcend different generations like some musicians. Stevie Wonder still sounds pretty good. … I believe in old morals and ideas, but you translate them in modern ways so they can understand.”

“He is certainly not a manage-by-the-numbers type of manager,” Rizzo said.
Baker was not a candidate the last time the Nationals searched for a manager. He explained he did not want to undercut his former player, Williams, though wanted to make clear at the time that he was not retired. He stepped on a major league field in 1968 when he was 19 years old. Despite being in his sixties, he was not ready to permanently step off.

That brought him downstairs to a press conference room Williams was booed in months earlier. The last time Rizzo sat in the same room surrounded by the media, he was explaining Williams‘ bungling, Jonathan Papelbon’s suspensions and Bryce Harper’s sort-of punishment. When it was his turn at the table, Baker’s engaging ways helped mute thoughts about that turmoil. His job now is make sure it doesn’t happen again, no matter what name people use.

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