Managing Nationals gives Dusty Baker fourth chance in big-league dugout

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Ex-Cubs skipper Dusty Baker, 66, says he’s grateful to the Nationals for giving him another opportunity to manage in the majors. | AP

BY DAN McGRATH

For the Sun-Times

Darren Baker, who as a 3-year-old escaped possible pulverization on national TV when the Giants’ J.T. Snow plucked him from a looming home-plate collision during Game 5 of the2002 World Series against the Angels, turned 17 on Thursday. He’s a left-handed-hitting outfield prospect at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, California.

Feeling old?

Darren’s father isn’t, even though he’ll be 67 on June 15 and will join the Mets’ Terry Collins as the oldest managers in baseball. Dusty Baker is about to begin a new gig running the Washington Nationals, probably the final chapter of a 50-year baseball story for which the reviews rarely have synched up with the achievements.

It’s Baker’s fourth tour as a major-league manager, and the previous two ended badly (as though Cubs fans need to be reminded). He will leave in two days for spring training in Viera, Florida, and he was busy with last-minute preparations for Darren’s birthday party. But he made it clear in a phone conversation that he’s not interested in vindication, image restoration or any such peripheral benefits of a memorable season.

‘‘This is who I am, what I do,’’ Baker said. ‘‘I’m grateful for the opportunity with a good team that has a chance to win. I feel great. I can’t wait to get started.’’

Twelve years ago, Baker was Joe Maddon. The Cubs were coming off an out-of-nowhere division title in his first season here, a title they had embellished with their first victory in a postseason series since 1907. The good vibes abruptly were turned off during an epic Game 6 meltdown in the National League Championship Series, but the dominating presence of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and the additions of Greg Maddux and Derrek Lee suggested a team on the rise.

It didn’t happen — for myriad reasons that don’t require a retelling here, though it’s worth noting that Prior and Wood, who were a combined 32-17 in Baker’s first season with the Cubs, broke down and went 30-32 in his last three.

Maddon, charming, accessible and totally confident in his quirky baseball acumen, currently rules the city. It will take more than, say, an elbow tweak to Jake Arrieta for the pitchfork-wielding mobs to turn on him as they did Baker, and the Cubs have gone to great lengths to prevent that by adding Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist to the best young core in baseball.

‘‘I wish we had added on like that,’’ Baker mused.

He got a firsthand look at the Cubs while working as a studio analyst for TNT last postseason. Any advice for the fifth man to occupy their manager’s office since he vacated it after the 2006 season?

‘‘I wouldn’t tell him much,’’ Baker said. ‘‘Joe’s a good dude who obviously knows what he’s doing. They’ve got a lot of talent and they added more, so they should keep winning. He’ll be fine as long as he does.’’

Sometimes winning isn’t enough. Baker made three playoff trips in his last four seasons with the Reds, but mounting frustration over early exits prompted his dismissal after a loss to the Pirates in the play-in game in 2013. The Reds finished a combined 44 games below .500 and 50 games out of first place in two subsequent seasons. Clearly, he was the problem.

Baker watched Darren play and helped a friend coach a junior-college team during his two seasons away from the majors. He developed a vineyard on his property in Northern California and invested in a solar-energy company to stay busy.

He thought he’d be stuck on 1,671 victories — 17th all-time — when the Nationals called, seeking a relaxed, people-skills leader to calm a tense, underachieving clubhouse whose dysfunction went on embarrassing display when reliever Jonathan Papelbon attacked National League MVP Bryce Harper in the dugout during a game Sept. 27 in Washington.

‘‘Unacceptable,’’ Baker said.

Papelbon is still with the team, but Baker thinks he can get the tightly wound veteran and the headstrong kid to play nice. He’s not intimidated by head cases; Barry Bonds was a three-time MVP with Baker’s Giants, and Sammy Sosa toned down his diva act a bit while they were together on the Cubs.

Baker signed a two-year contract, added old buddies Chris Speier, Davey Lopes and Jacque Jones to his coaching staff and finds it amusing that the ‘‘players’ manager’’ label that helped undo him in Chicago got him hired in Washington.

‘‘We’ve got a good chance to win here,’’ Baker said. ‘‘Maybe we’ll see the Cubs in the playoffs.’’

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