- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2017

Return sought, but deal parameters shift

When the now out-of-the-playoffs Nationals take a post-haze assessment of their roster and situation, they will see continuity in most places. The rotation and bullpen are clear. The infield will remain the same. Only in the outfield will there be a slight change.

But, glaring as the Nationals enter the winter before the final season on Bryce Harper’s contract, is the status of manager Dusty Baker.

Baker’s resume since he arrived in 2016, pulling on his new Nats jersey and doing a pirouette for the cameras, is stout. Two division titles following seasons of 95 and 97 wins, respectively, plus strong responses from his team, even during the last season, which was filled with injuries.

At the end of each season is the crater. Back-to-back Game 5 losses in Nationals Park to keep the District playoff doldrums alive. Back-to-back seasons with another team jumping around on the Nationals’ diamond before soiling the visitor’s clubhouse in celebration. Thursday night, the Nationals had temporary carpet put down in their clubhouse and protective plastic tacked up above lockers. It remained dry.

So, when assessing Baker’s future in the District, several layers of consideration are in play. How much credit does he receive for the six months of the grind to get to a division title? How much of the blame does he deserve for the consecutive division series playoff losses? How much money does he think he should receive? How much do the Nationals think he should receive?

When Baker was not provided an extension in spring training, despite publicly saying he would like one, the team went through the season knowing that Baker would have to wait. By the end of the regular season, Baker and general manager Mike Rizzo both began to say that they would speak after the season and expected Baker to return.

The parameters around negotiations have taken a decided shift since the Nationals hired Baker after Bud Black turned them down in 2016. Then, Baker had been out of baseball for two years, was reaching out to the Nationals in hopes of landing a new job, and needed to acquiesce to obtain it. None of those factors are prevalent now.

However, there is a body of work to look at both on and off the field. Like every manager in the postseason, moves made by Baker during the playoffs can be questioned. He has also contributed, on some level, to the team’s communication snafus, most notably when trying to be coy about Stephen Strasburg’s status during the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. Baker also sometimes reveals things publicly, primarily on inconsequential topics, before the buttoned-down Nationals would like them to be said in a press conference setting.

At 68 years old, Baker does remain driven by the chase for a World Series title as a manager. He is also spurred by a process he saw his father, Johnnie Baker Sr., go through. Dusty Baker had encouraged his father to retire and finally take a break. Once Johnnie Baker Sr. did, his health quickly went downhill. So, Baker Sr. went out and got a part-time job when his health returned. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

“What keeps me going is I love what I’m doing,” Dusty Baker said last week. “I love competition. In our world, people always want people to quit, and I hear it all the time.

“So what keeps me going is the quest for excellence, the thrill of competition, plus there’s a few things that I want to accomplish in life. And until I figure out why the lows of losing don’t match the highs of winning, then I’ll probably be a manager for awhile. Not a long while, but a while.”

Washington’s 97 wins this season vaulted Baker into 14th all-time on the managerial win list. Twelve of the 13 in front of him are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also No. 1 among active managers, 10 wins ahead of San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy. The body of work is expansive, if lacking a crown.

His charisma has served him well during two seasons in Washington. Players around the clubhouse touted Baker’s abilities following the Game 5 loss against the Cubs. However, public comments about the manager usually run toward the positive, if they are going to be made.

“I think Dusty’s great,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “The whole coaching staff. Those guys worked their butt off to get us ready. They do such a good job of making sure they relate to us. That’s a great group of guys in there. They’re just as much deserving of the success we’ve had as we are. They probably work harder than us, to be honest with you. So it’s a pleasure to be part of that staff. I think everyone in this room would love to have them back.”

Unwittingly, Zimmerman’s answer provides a reminder that pitching coach Mike Maddux is also at the end of his two-year deal. Maddux was, for all intents and purposes, a hire separate of Baker. He is also a well-paid pitching coach with a strong track record. Retaining him will not be cheap.

Maddux played with one of Ryan Madson’s sons after the loss. When Baker went through the clubhouse to say his goodbyes, his office was populated with friends. This is standard for him, a reflection of his people-gathering skills and baseball brotherhood. That office has been occupied by seven managers since baseball returned to the District in 2005. Will there be an eighth next year?

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