SAN FRANCISCO — Dusty Baker, standing behind the batter’s cage wearing a purple sweater and black corduroy pants instead of a baseball uniform, looks over his right shoulder and sees the Nationals trickling out of the dugout.
They slowly start walking over, from coaches such as carryover Bob Henley, to pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, to broadcaster F.P. Santangelo, to infielder Howie Kendrick, who changed his number to 12 in honor of Baker, to even the man who fired him, GM Mike Rizzo.
“Dusty and the Baker family will always have a special place in my heart,’’ Nats starter Gio Gonzalez said. “I’ll always be grateful for what Dusty did for me and how he treated me. Trust me, he’ll never be forgotten around here.’’
This goes on for more than an hour Monday afternoon, and finally Baker takes one last glance at the team he managed the last two years to National League East championships, the team he believes he should still be managing, and walks away.
This is the first time he saw his former players and staffers since that miserable 9-8 loss in Game 5 of the NL Division Series against the Cubs. It was their worst game of the season. Baker left for his D.C. apartment late that evening, never imagining it would be six months before he’d see everyone again.
Baker, hired last month as a special advisor to Giants CEO Larry Baer, had no intention of even coming onto the field to see them now. He thought it would be too awkward. Then again, why should he be embarrassed? He had nothing to be ashamed of during his two-year stay.
“But it does feel strange standing here,’’ Baker says. “Very strange. That’s OK. I’ll get over it. My dad used to always tell me, ‘You got to face the music head on.’
“I lived and died with these guys. I gave them everything I had. And as long as you could do the best that you could do, everything else is out of your control.’’
For two years, he had the Nationals in first place. There were only seven days they weren’t in first place and never more than one game out.
Entering Tuesday, the Nationals were 10-13 and in fourth place, 5½ games behind the Mets and fighting for survival. Sure, they have injuries, but they had plenty of injuries when Baker was manager, too.
“I don’t wish bad on anybody,’’ Baker says, “but I still don’t understand it. It was almost like if I didn’t win it all, I was a failure.
“But nobody is going to make me feel like that. Nobody is going to bring me down. I’m not going to let it control my self-esteem.’’
Technically, it wasn’t a firing because Baker’s two-year contract expired, but it had the same effect. They didn’t even dismiss him in person, leaving him hanging in Washington for six days while they decided his fate, only calling the same day he returned home to California.
It made no sense to Baker, but looking back, he says maybe he should have seen it coming. When he landed the job in the first place, accepting a two-year, $4 million contract after making twice the amount in Cincinnati, they wanted to hire a successor on the staff for him to mentor. Baker refused.
“They wanted me to train someone to be my successor, someone they picked,’’ Baker said. “I wasn’t doing that. Why am I training someone to take my job?
Baker, who was advised by everyone from Hank Aaron to Willie Mays to Tony Dungy to Bill Cosby not to lash out in the aftermath, instead became a recluse for weeks. He didn’t feel like fishing. Hunting. Or even seeing anyone.
He was hurting, knowing that at the age of 68, despite his 1,863 career victories, nine playoff appearances, one pennant and three NL Manager of the Year awards, his managerial career was likely over.
Oh, sure, as a special assistant, watching games with vice president Brian Sabean and scouting in the minor leagues and amateur ranks, he could be back in uniform tomorrow if the right job came along. But the phone only rang once in the last four years seeking his managerial services, so what are the odds of it happening now?
“Today’s game isn’t any different than it was before,’’ Baker says, “but it’s a different time in our country. There was always race discrimination to a degree, but now there is age discrimination and salary discrimination and intellectual discrimination.
“Experience doesn’t really mean to matter anymore. Winning doesn’t seem to matter, either. It really doesn’t matter what you do if they want you gone.’’
Baker was one of three veteran managers fired after leading their teams to the postseason. He says he’d be lying if there still wasn’t pain. It’s only natural. He felt he was the right man for Washington.
“I really wanted to get two more years there, get 2,000 wins and get that first World Series in a Nationals uniform,” Baker said. “I wanted to go to the Hall of Fame wearing a Nationals cap.’’
Enshrinement would mean everything to Baker. He was originally hired as a coach in the aftermath of former Dodgers GM Al Campanis’ racist remarks on “Nightline,” saying in 1987 that African-Americans lacked the necessities to be major-league managers.
“It would be good for America and show that we truly are qualified,’’ Baker says. “I got my job originally because of what Campanis said, so out of a negative came a positive. And in my mind, I’ve been one of the best for a long time.
“Nowadays, with no black players on the field [just 7.8 percent] and 40 percent Hispanic players and the rest white players, most of us of color aren’t needed. I think getting into the Hall of Fame would help change that.’’
Baker, just one of 16 African-American managers hired since Campanis’ remarks, says that if he is elected into the Hall of Fame, he now would represent the Giants. This is the team he spent 15 years as a manager and coach. This is the area where he still lives. This is where his son, Darren, is a freshman playing baseball at Cal. This will always be home.
Baker, who spends 35 minutes chatting with USA Today after leaving the field, suddenly looks down at his cellphone. It is Darren. He and four of his teammates are on the field, hanging out with the Nationals. Darren has stayed in contact with Gonzalez, just as he has with Jay Bruce and Joey Votto when his dad managed the Reds.
Darren asks his dad if he wants to return to the field, but Baker declines, saying he has spent enough time already down there. They talk a few more minutes, but just before hanging up, Baker has a quick question.
“Hey, what are you wearing today?’’ Baker asks.
Baker listens to the answer, breaks into a wide grin and exhales.
Darren is wearing a Giants cap and sweatshirt. No more Nats gear.
“That’s my boy,’’ Baker says. “That is my boy.’’
He laughs, takes the elevator to the third floor, plops down in Suite 1 and watches the Giants beat the Nationals.
For a night, everything felt all right.