- - Thursday, April 19, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Dusty Baker was always quotable during his time managing the Washington Nationals, always had something interesting to say.

One quote, though, in particular, has stuck with me since his team lost in five games to the Chicago Cubs in the 2017 National League Division Series — and, subsequently, Baker, a three-time NL Manager of the Year, being let go as skipper after his contract was not renewed.

Responding to questions about why he was starting a struggling Jayson Werth instead of perhaps the hotter-hitting Howie Kendrick in left field during the series, Baker responded, “I was Jayson Werth.”

In a wide-ranging interview on the latest Cigars & Curveballs podcast conversation, available here on the Washington Times website, as well as iTunes, Google play and the reVolver podcast network, Baker, who played 19 years in the major leagues, explained his reason for sticking with Werth — arguably one of the decisions that may have led to his departure.

“If you played long enough and effectively enough, you are going to be Jayson Werth,” he told me on the podcast. “Toward the end of your career, if a guy has been great in the clutch, and you know there are one of two great games or at-bats in there … you want to give him that opportunity.



“Jayson kind of put the team on the map,” Baker said. “He was the first real big free agent they went after. I had to do the right thing in my heart and in my mind. I really wrestled with that. Was I going to play Howie Kendrick, or Jayson Werth? That is what I was talking about.”

Of course, that explanation won’t satisfy Baker’s critics — it likely only adds to their resolve. This is why you have a generation of robots being hired in the dugout. There is no room for betting on heart — your own or, in this case, a veteran player who had been so important to this team.

Baker recognized the influence of Werth inside the Nationals clubhouse, and the risk involved in benching the leader of the team. But you can’t quantify that. There is no number to crunch on one or two great games or at-bats left in a veteran player. There is value, though, in the presence of a Jayson Werth. Perhaps you can quantify it if you look at the start the Nationals have gotten off to this season.

This is not a love letter to Werth, a player who only said to me when he spoke, “Get the (blank) away from my locker.” But I always recognized his value inside the Nationals clubhouse — a space with few candidates for leaders.

And this is not an indictment of the manager who replaced Baker — Dave Martinez, who may turn out to be an excellent skipper and was certainly deserving of a shot at managing a team.

But Baker, 68, recently hired by San Francisco Giants, the team he managed from 1993 through 2002, as a special advisor, should have never been fired in Washington. People inside baseball know it. To borrow a line from departed Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, “People who know, know.”

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo knew it, though he has never stated so publicly. Baker, who led the Nationals to two straight NL East division titles and 192 regular season wins, rarely out of first place during his tenure — spoke about the phone call he got from Rizzo and how he believed the Lerners, the owners of the franchise, dealt him a bad hand at the end.

“I know when Rizzo made that call, that was a tough call for Riz,” Baker said.

“I know Rizzo had told me … I asked him what are my chances of coming back, because I didn’t know what to do with my place in Alexandria,” Baker said. “He said, sign the lease, you’ll be back. But I didn’t sign the lease because I know how volatile things are.

“What upset me a little bit was how long it took to make up their minds,” he said. “I’m a big boy, you can tell me exactly what is going on. You know you are judged by wins and losses, but I thought the job we did, the job my staff did with the injuries we had, grinding and grinding … things didn’t work out well in the playoffs.

“Our guys fought. We always fought. It really hurt to sit down in my office at the end of that game. We were so close. We wanted it for ourselves, we wanted it for the city.”

Baker loved his time in Washington and loved managing this team. “I watch them every day,” he said. “I’ll probably go watch them when they are here playing the Giants (Monday through Wednesday).

“I loved the people in Washington,” he said. “I loved the diversity. I like the people in the area. I had a great time. Most of the people in the organization treated me well. I loved the players. I wish them well.”

One of his favorites was Bryce Harper. “My time with Bryce was very insightful,” Baker said. “We had some heavy conversations about things like religion, things in life. I think Bryce is wise beyond his years. He knows what’s going on. He knows what is going on almost all the time. If there is one player that knows the history of baseball, I think he probably knows it as much as anyone and he is one of the youngest guys there.”

What does he think Harper, who will be a free agent at the end of this season, should do with his future in baseball? “I really don’t know what Bryce is going to do, he hasn’t said,” Baker said. “I am hoping that they keep him. If they let him get out there, who knows what is doing to happen. He could be the face of the franchise for a long time. He has gotten off to a heck of a start. He is a heck of a player.

“I used to bring him different foods,” Baker said. “He loved Shepherd’s Pie, I found out. He said I never had a manager bring me food. It was an investment of time, energy and love. I’m pulling for him to do well.”

Baker talked about leadership. “Everybody expects your best player to be the leader,” he said. “In my years, that is why I never appointed a captain, because everybody expects the best player to be the leader. But they may not have the personality to be the leader. They may not be the one everyone wants to follow. But they are the best player.

“When I was in San Francisco, Barry (Bonds) and Will (Clark) were the best players on the team and people expected them to be the leaders,” he said. “But my leaders were Robby Thompson and Willie McGee. This year they (Washington) have to come up with a new leader. There is a period of time when the leader of your team leaves, and then a new leader emerges. I don’t think that person should be appointed. I think leaders are anointed by other teammates.”

Perhaps not in today’s game, where, to borrow a line from another former Redskins player, Jeff George, “That leadership stuff is overrated.”

There’s no key for it on the keyboard.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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