Let’s give it up for the amazing Washington Nationals, who might be making history in front of our eyes. Perhaps no other franchise in baseball – or any other sport – has pulled off the feat we’ve seen over the last few years.
Think about it. The Nationals have gone from laughingstocks who suffered back-to-back 100-loss seasons, to laughingstocks who captured two division titles in a four-year span. Don’t underestimate the difficulty in remaining a joke after attaining success.
Looks like we had it wrong all along: Winning doesn’t cure everything. And every turnaround isn’t a reversal.
The Nationals don’t deserve Dusty Baker, one of baseball’s classiest and most-respected figures. Bud Black didn’t deserve his treatment by the Nationals, one of baseball’s crassest and most-ridiculed franchises. Baker landed the managerial job but you have to wonder if Black isn’t the true victor.
He doesn’t have to work for an organization that keeps finding new ways to embarrass itself.
Fortunately for the Nats, their on-field product is attractive enough to counterbalance the dysfunctional ownership. At age 66, with 20 years as a skipper and three Manager of the Year awards to his credit, Baker is interested in winning a World Series more than winning at the negotiating table. He’ll be introduced Thursday morning, willing to overlook Washington’s clear disrespect for managers because this team can put a ring on his finger.
He won’t bad-mouth the Nats in public. He’ll say all the right things, how he’s happy to be back in baseball after a three-year absence. How the Nationals are still loaded and should contend for the World Series, despite the expected departure of several key players. How no matter what happened during the hiring process, whether he was the No.1 candidate or runner-up, it’s his job now and he plans to maximize the opportunity.
But surely he’s incredulous – like everyone else – that the club offered Black a one-year contract with a straight face. One year? For a veteran major-league manager?
Novice Matt Williams got a two-year deal. Don Mattingly just signed for four years with the Miami Marlins. Three is normal. Offering a lone year doesn’t express interest, it displays contempt.
Black reportedly was “deeply offended” and you can’t blame him. Even if the proposed deal eventually reached three years, a low starting point can leave a sour taste and make you of leery of swallowing anything that follows. It’s like heeding the warning sign when a prospective mate shows you the first glimpse of crazy.
Black probably hasn’t been paying attention, but there were prior indications that this organization is off. Former GM Jim Bowden said the Lerner family balked at the idea of paying Joe Girardi market rate to be Frank Robinson’s replacement. Manny Acta got the gig in 2007 and lasted three woeful seasons. Girardi was named Yankees manager in 2008 and won the World Series the next season. Previous Nats managers Williams, Davey Johnson and Jim Riggleman also had deals that were short on money, years or both.
Once teams begin spring training and embark on the season, no one cares about also-ran candidates or the skipper’s contract status (unless he’s a lame duck). From that point on, it’s all about batting orders, in-game strategy, bullpen usage and clubhouse chemistry. Those are the measures Baker will be judged on, not whether he’s underpaid or signed long-term.
And as much as critics want to howl that Black was the better choice, there’s no proof. In one piece I read, the author dismissed Baker’s superior winning percentage and vast postseason experience because he had more talented teams. If nothing else the last two seasons, we’ve learned that talented teams can fall short.
Besides, I’ve yet to see a championship squad filled with bums.
The facts are that Baker has won five division titles and reached the playoffs seven times, including a World Series. He has managed the game’s biggest names and biggest egos with ease, creating a culture that his players love and their opponents envy. In addition to winning Manager of the Year three times, he has three second-place finishes in the balloting (though considering Williams, perhaps MOY awards should be left unmentioned).
This managerial process is another mark on a franchise that’s rife with them. But the Nats landed a fine skipper in the end. Baker is an exceedingly credible hire who will shift focus from the way ownership does business to how the team handles its affairs on the field.
Here’s to more winning … and to Baker getting the last laugh.