WASHINGTON - Dusty Baker may not have been the first choice as the new manager for the Washington Nationals. But the veteran skipper and former All-Star outfielder may end up being the right pick for general manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner ownership family.
Eight days after the job was offered to Bud Black, 58, according to published reports, the 66-year-old Baker was introduced Thursday morning at Nationals Park as the sixth full-time skipper since 2006 for the National League East club. He replaces Matt Williams, who was fired on Oct. 5 after two seasons on the job.
Baker said he was at a writer's retreat center in Santa Cruz, Calif., last week when he was under the impression the Washington job would go to Black, who pitched for Baker with San Francisco Giants in 1993-94.
"I resigned myself to the fact I had to deal with another disappointment," said Baker, with Rizzo sitting to his left on a foggy, San Francisco-like morning in the nation's capital. "I was a little bewildered as to why no one told me I didn't get the job. Now I know why; they hadn't mind up their mind."
But now the California native has the job, one that will require some fence mending after new closer Jonathan Papelbon went for the throat of all-star slugger Bryce Harper in the Washington dugout on Sept. 27 - one day after the Nationals were eliminated from postseason play as the New York Mets won the division.
"A team has to be close. I can bring closeness to the team," Baker said. "There is always conflict; you talk about it. You don't let things fester. You can see it (building) on the plane or bus" and it can be diffused.
Baker said when he was playing with the Dodgers teammate Reggie Smith came up to him and took Baker to talk to a third player, one that Baker had said bad things about behind the player's back. Baker, who became friends with the unnamed player, used that story to show that conflict needs to be addressed before it escalates.
And Baker takes over a talented roster.
"That is why I was excited about coming here," Baker said of a squad that includes Harper, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman. "Most of the other teams were near the bottom (when he took over) or had to rebuild. They have talent here. They have young talent here. I am here to do more with more. They have a mixture of youth and experience at the same time. I have always liked that formula."
Baker has managed such stars as Barry Bonds, who Rizzo said has not been contacted about being the team's hitting coach.
Baker looks forward to managing Harper.
"He can really play. I love watching him play," Baker said of Harper, who hit .330 with 42 homers and 99 RBIs last season.
Baker has 20 years of experience as a major-league manager and made at least one playoff appearance with three teams: the Giants, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. He last managed at the end of the 2013 season with the Reds and was a postseason analyst this year for TBS.
Baker was the National League Manager of the Year in 1993, 1997 and 2000 and has a record of 1,671-1,504 and ranks second behind Bruce Bochy (1,702) of the Giants in wins among active managers. He guided the Giants from 1993-2002, the Cubs from 2003-06 and the Reds from 2008-13.
"His strengths are plentiful," Rizzo said. "He does everything you need to do to be a successful manager. He is famous for handling of players and handling of the clubhouse."
The well-rounded Baker, who loves music, is a published author and has owned a winery, said the one void in his life is winning a World Series as a manager.
Former William & Mary standout Bill Bray was a left-handed pitcher who made his big-league debut with the Nationals in 2006 and then played under Baker with the Reds from 2008-12.
"He was laid back and approachable," Bray, who is now retired, told The Sports Xchange in a telephone interview. "He had a very strong manager pedigree. Everywhere he had been he had won. I would say Dusty treats everyone fairly."
A former reliever, Bray liked how Baker handled him out of the bullpen. One of the criticisms of Baker in the past he that he burnt out young pitchers.
"The one thing I liked about Dusty was he was predictable. I knew what to expect out of him. You knew when you were going to pitch with him," said Virginia native Bray, now in law school at William & Mary.
The new pitching coach will be Mike Maddux, who had been with the Texas Rangers. The new first base/infield coach will be Davey Lopes, a former Dodgers teammate with Baker.
Maddux grew up in Las Vegas, pitched in the big leagues from 1986-2000 and is the brother of Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. "I think he relies heavily on his pitching coach," Bray said of Baker.
Williams was the National League Manager of the Year in 2014 but was criticized for taking out starter Jordan Zimmermann in the ninth of Game 2 in the NLDS against the Giants and for his use of the bullpen in Game 4 of the same series that year.
The Nationals underperformed this past year at 83-79, and were beset by injuries, which was noted by Baker as one of the reasons for a down season. The Nationals were eliminated from postseason play Sept. 26 and the next day Papelbon attacked Harper in the dugout in the eighth inning. Williams sent out Papelbon to pitch the ninth, something Rizzo called "odd."
The Nationals are expected to lose starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and veteran shortstop Ian Desmond to free agency. Washington could also lose pitcher Doug Fister and center fielder Denard Span to the free-agent market. But the Nationals should have a strong rotation with Scherzer, who threw two no-hitters in 2015, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Tanner Roark and possibly Joe Ross.
Baker won a World Series as a player with the Dodgers in 1981 and also took part in the Falls Classic with the team in 1977 and 1978. His only trip to the World Series as a manager was with the San Francisco Giants in a loss to the Angels in 2002.
NOTES: Baker broke into the majors with the Atlanta Braves at the age of 19 in six games in 1968. The Nationals open the 2016 season at Atlanta on April 4. ... As of Thursday, Baker is the only African-American manager in the big leagues. Washington general Mike Rizzo said that did not figure into the hiring of Baker, who attended the Washington Wizards NBA game on Wednesday night with Rizzo. Baker said he likes the diversity of the nation's capital. ... Matt Williams, the previous Washington manager, played for Baker with the San Francisco Giants from 1993-96. ... F.P. Santangelo, a broadcaster who covers the Nationals for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), played for Baker with the Giants in 1999. ... It has been an eventful week for the Nationals. On Wednesday a judge in New York ruled in favor of the Baltimore Orioles and threw out a decision by MLB that had said the Orioles owed the Nationals nearly $300 million in rights fees from 2012-16 with regards to MASN, which broadcasts games for both clubs.