The choke’s on the Nationals with Dusty Baker hiring
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Dusty Baker is back in the saddle again, this time as the manager of the Washington Nationals.
The horse and spurs metaphor works here because Dusty is a cowboy name. And in certain ways, Johnnie B. ‘‘Dusty’’ Baker has always been a cowboy, riding, taming and getting thrown from broncos named race, expectation, pitching-staff usage, playoff hopes, superstardom.
Baker, now 66, didn’t leave the Cubs on the greatest of terms back in 2006, having stepped in a prairie-dog hole in 2003 called the ‘‘five outs away’’ mess. He was criticized, generally, for overusing pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and for being too old-school. And, above all, he was criticized for not calling timeout or slowing things down or doing something to stop the pox of disbelief that came like a fog from the ‘‘Bartman ball’’ interference in the eighth inning of Game 6 against the Florida Marlins in the NLCS.
That single moment — when the Cubs were closer to the World Series than they had been since 1945 — destroyed him in Chicago. He would leave town a changed man. That’s how managers always leave the Cubs, isn’t it? Stunned, perplexed, wounded, fried.
His rookie year as Cubs skipper started with ‘‘In Dusty We Trusty’’ T-shirts and great fan excitement but ended with despairing misery. Could somebody else have known that dependable shortstop Alex Gonzalez was going to blow a simple ground ball? Should someone have known that Prior suddenly couldn’t get anybody out? Could anybody have known . . . anything?
Baker sat mostly motionless as the disaster unfolded. The Marlins scored eight runs in the inning, and Cubs history was derailed once again.
Baker went off to become the Reds’ manager and eventually was fired there in 2013 after six years. As in Chicago, and before that with the San Francisco Giants, Baker had teased Cincinnati fans with some exciting seasons, a playoff appearance by his team, and, ultimately, failure.
Indeed, Baker is a leader of epic collapses. In 1993, his Giants led the NL West by 9½ games Aug. 7 but imploded and lost the division title to the Braves and missed the playoffs.
With a 3-2 series lead against the Angels in the 2002 World Series, the Giants had a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game 6, then gave up six runs and lost the game and, ultimately, the Series.
In 2012, Baker’s Reds had a 2-0 series lead in the NLDS against the Giants but lost three straight at home.
Bartmanesque? A curse?
Baker had complained abut the racist letters he received as Cubs manager, and he said in his first year at Wrigley Field: “Black and Hispanic players are better-suited to playing in the sun and heat than white players.” He explained later that, “What I meant is that blacks and Latinos take the heat better than most whites, and whites take the cold better than most blacks and Latinos. That’s it, pure and simple. Nothing deeper than that.”
Well, in our supercharged ethnic world, that’s pretty deep. Maybe he’s right — an Inuit might be better with subzero wind and glaciers than, say, a Dinka. And a Dinka likely would be better at withstanding desert heat and sun than an Inuit. But what of playoff games in the autumn cold, or indoor games set to room temperature? What’s this got to do with ballplayers?
“If a white manager made those statements, there’s no question he would find himself in a group that includes Al Campanis and Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder,” said sports sociologist Harry Edwards, who is black.
Well, I don’t begrudge Dusty any of that. He may not be a great thinker, but he’s a player’s manager, and if he hadn’t been hired by the Nationals, there would not have been a single black manager in Major League Baseball in 2016 (though the Dodgers’ job is still vacant).
That’s pitiful in a sport in which 40 percent of the players are minorities.
It’s also weird for the Nationals, who basically had Bud Black hired as their new skipper but lowballed him so badly on their contact offer — a reported two-year deal for less than $2 million — that Black said screw you and left.
Dusty has been on TV as a commentator, and that’s always a great PR move. He lobbied for a manager’s job simply by being in everybody’s living room.
He’ll inherit a team with a high payroll that terribly underachieved in 2015, that had tons of injuries, that has a bunch of free agents who likely will bolt and that has chaos at its heart. You’ll recall reliever Jonathan Papelbon trying to strangle teammate and MVP candidate Bryce Harper in late September?
Good luck, Dusty. Hold on to the reins.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.