WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It's been almost 50 years since Dusty Baker first set foot in West Palm Beach. Fifty years since he broke into pro ball. Fifty years since he stood on a grassy bank and, rod and reel in hand, cast his line into the lake right behind Hank Aaron Stadium. That's how Baker spent much of that first spring training with the Braves. Nearly every day after workouts, he would hoof it out there with Ralph Garr, and together the two rookies would while away the afternoon under the warm Florida sun, waiting for the crappie to bite. Five decades later, Baker is still at it. Only now, he's fishing for something else.
When he was introduced as the manager of the Washington Nationals in November 2015, it took Baker all of about two minutes to come out and say what everyone else already knew: The reason he came back, at the age of 66 and after two years out of the game, was because something was missing.
Despite a robust career that included 19 years as a player -- with a championship and two All-Star appearances -- plus another 20 seasons as a skipper, during which time he had won three manager of the year awards and made the postseason seven times, he had never won a World Series as a manager. A year later, he still hasn't.
Maybe this will finally be Dusty Baker's year. After all, his Nationals won 95 games last season, and that was with Bryce Harper turning in one of the most disappointing campaigns ever by a reigning MVP. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Tanner Roark are still among the best big three of any rotation in the game. Splashy reinforcements have arrived in the form of outfielder Adam Eaton and catcher Matt Wieters. Sure, the bullpen is a concern. Yes, paper powerhouses like the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians will most certainly have something to say about it. Still, when it comes to wrangling a ring, the 2017 Nationals should give Baker as a good a chance as any team he has ever had.
For all we know, it could be his last chance.
THREE WEEKS INTO spring training, Baker -- who is in the second and final season of a two-year deal -- has not been given a contract extension.
"I don't wanna be a distraction to my team," Baker says after one of Washington's first full-squad workouts at the brand-new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. But while the skipper's uncertain status is not yet a full-blown nuisance, it's becoming news.
It could simply be a case of the Nationals being the Nationals. Maybe the club fully intends to extend Baker but hasn't gotten around to it yet, kind of like when they didn't get around to giving well-respected general manager Mike Rizzo an extension until the middle of last season, just months before his contract was set to expire. After all, what with trying to find a closer and a catcher and a center fielder -- not to mention rushing to finish a $150 million construction project in Florida -- management's honey-do list was longer than Jayson Werth's hair. Then again, maybe the Nats are a little gun-shy.
It's hard to believe that any front office could have reservations about a manager who is as well-liked around the game as Baker and who has had as much success as Baker has had (his 1,766 wins are 17th all time and second among active skippers). But these are the facts:
Since coming to D.C. in 2005, the Nationals have had six different bench bosses (seven counting John McLaren, who logged three games as interim manager in 2011), none of whom has lasted longer than 2½ seasons.
One of those skippers was Davey Johnson, who at age 70 and in his final season with Washington, was saddled with back problems that would later require surgery.
After three first-round playoff exits in four years with the Cincinnati Reds, Baker was out of baseball for two years.
In November 2015, when Baker got back into baseball, he wasn't Washington's first choice. (Bud Black, now with the Colorado Rockies, was.)
In other words, if you're looking for reasons the Nationals haven't extended Baker yet, beyond just doing the paperwork, you can find them. Although you wouldn't know it by talking to Rizzo.
"He's a terrific manager," Rizzo says of Baker, who last season guided Washington to a 12-game improvement and a division title. "His mind is as sharp as it's always been. He's got the energy and passion and health to manage way beyond this year."
He just doesn't have the contract extension. Not yet, anyway. As for when that will change -- if that will change -- Rizzo refuses to tip his hand.
"I'm not going to discuss what Dusty and I are talking about," he says. "Dusty's contract situation is not going to become a distraction."
For what it's worth, Baker himself doesn't seem terribly concerned. He also doesn't seem like someone who -- ring or no ring -- is quite ready to walk away. Not yet. He still wears batting gloves on both hands, just in case he needs to swing the ubiquitous red fungo he totes around from diamond to diamond during workouts. He still puts long johns on under his uniform every day, even in the sweltering South Florida heat, just like late outfielder Dave Philley taught him to do when he was a teenager in the minors -- so as not to pull a muscle. He still is more than happy to sign autograph after autograph; his is arguably the most sought-after John Hancock at Nats camp.
"He's almost 70, but he acts like he's in his twenties," says Washington pitcher Gio Gonzalez. "I think Dusty's here to stay for a long time, and baseball needs Dusty to stay for a long time."
Nationals outfielder Chris Heisey offered his take.
"He's as sharp and energetic as ever," says Heisey, who spent five seasons playing for Baker in Cincinnati before rejoining him in D.C. last year. "He loves the game, and it helps keep him young. He loves the competition, he loves mentoring guys and he loves just being in the dugout for big league ballgames."
He loves it just as much, if not more, than his beloved fishing rod.
EVERYWHERE BAKER HAS BEEN, his tackle has gone with him. After day games in Frisco, where Pac Bell Park (now AT&T Park) opened in the middle of his tenure with the Giants, he would routinely take a handful of players out on McCovey Cove and the San Francisco Bay in search of halibut or sturgeon or striped bass, maybe even salmon if they were running. One year back when the Reds used to train in Florida, he stayed in Siesta Key, where he had a dock right in his backyard and drained the Gulf of Mexico of damn near every snook and sheepshead out there. "One of the greatest springs ever," he calls it.
Here in West Palm Beach, he has his rod tucked away in his truck, ready for the first off day. Until then, he has, well, bigger fish to fry.
"I got work to do," says Baker, seated behind the desk of an office that, much like the rest of the Nats' new Florida home, is very much a work in progress. Shoved in the corner is a portable garment rack, from which several No. 12 jerseys and some street clothes quietly hang. Stacked on the bureau (because the shelves haven't arrived yet) is a pile of books that includes "The Alchemist," "The Power of Positive Confrontation" and "Leadership: The Warrior's Art." Mounted on an otherwise stark wall is a tan corkboard plastered with paperwork -- schedules, rosters and such. On a micro level, this is what Baker is referring to when he says he has work to do. On a macro level, "I got work to do" means something much bigger.
Even though Dusty Baker came back to managing to win a World Series, that's not his only goal. At the end of last season, he said that becoming the first African-American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager is something he has thought about, something he would like to accomplish. Of course, those two things aren't entirely unrelated. Of the 16 skippers in major league history who have won more games than Baker, 15 have at least one World Series title to their credit. Gene Mauch is the only one who doesn't, and along with Lou Piniella and Jim Leyland, Mauch is the only one not enshrined in Cooperstown. That's not to say Baker needs a championship to get a Hall pass (Al Lopez and Miller Huggins are among those who have been bronzed despite being ringless as a manager and tallying fewer wins than Baker). But getting one would seem to make him a shoo-in. Question is, what happens then?
Let's say the Nationals actually get over the hump in 2017 and win a playoff series for the first time since coming to D.C. Let's say they get greedy and go all the way, nabbing the first championship in franchise history. Extension or no extension, does their manager just cash in his chips?
"I hope to have a dock next year. Know what I mean? Next year."Dusty Baker
"I always says if I win one, [I'm gonna] win two," says Baker at one of his news conferences during the first week of camp. "That doesn't sound like walk away to me, you know what I mean? I'll worry about that when I get there, but that's not my plan right now."
Right now, to the extent that he can continue to be gainfully employed, Baker's plan is to keep going. To keep doing what he has spent the past quarter-century doing. As much as he lives for the game, he knows he doesn't want to pull a Jack McKeon and manage into his 80s. He says he doesn't want to start falling asleep in the dugout, like Casey Stengel supposedly did toward the end of a career that lasted until he was 75.
"I don't ever wanna be around that long," Baker says.
At the same time, Baker admits his legacy is something he thinks about. Not all the time. He's too well-rounded for that. But enough to know that if it weren't for his two-year hiatus, he would be on the verge of 2,000 wins, a milestone that only 10 managers have ever reached. Instead, he starts this season at 1,766. Do the math and Baker would be looking at cracking Club 2K somewhere around the end of the 2019 season. That is, if he's still around. "Three years might be pushing it," he says. For now, he's perfectly happy where he is. Well, almost.
Besides coming back to the same town where it all started a half-century ago, besides having a legit shot at winning it all and (finally) hushing the haters, one of things that most excited Baker about spring training 2017 was the chance to spend seven weeks fishing off the dock in his backyard. Just like that magical year in Siesta Key. He had the perfect place all lined up -- right on the Intracoastal Waterway, just off Lake Worth Avenue. Then, at the last minute, the dream fell through. But he says he has been talking to some realtors.
"I hope to have a dock next year," he says. "Know what I mean?" Arms folded and head tilted to the side, he leans back in his office chair and flashes a mischievous grin. Then the man without a contract extension repeats himself.