MLB Teams
Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer 34d

Don't blame Dusty Baker for the Nationals' failures -- look at ownership

MLB, Washington Nationals

The Washington Nationals are a bad organization.

After consecutive 95-plus-win seasons with consecutive heartbreaking Game 5 losses in the National League Division Series, that they fired manager Dusty Baker is proof of many things, but one thing especially: They are a bad organization with bad owners.

The team has been in Washington for 13 seasons. It has had six managers, seven if you count the hiring and rescinding of the offer to Bud Black, who was chosen over Baker to manage in 2016. The Nationals have made the playoffs four times in the past six years and have lost in the division series each time, including losing three of four in a deciding fifth game, all at home. For being so close and winning the National League East in 2016 by 20 games, the Lerner family, which runs the team, has had three managers since 2012. Baker, with a .593 winning percentage, is the most successful manager in Nationals history, and that includes the Montreal Expos version of the franchise.

The Nationals are a bad organization because they hired Matt Williams, who was in over his head as a first-time manager, lost the clubhouse and underachieved. They are a bad organization because, after doing the right thing by firing Williams, they responded to Baker stabilizing the Williams mess by firing him and undermining that stability when general manager Mike Rizzo said, "Winning a lot of games in the regular season and division titles is not enough."

It was a stunning thing for anyone who understands just how hard winning is, especially in a league in which the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs -- the two teams that beat Baker's Nats in the playoffs -- are better. Maybe Rizzo would like to go back to Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper in the dugout.

Back in 1995, after Tony La Russa left the Athletics to manage the St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland GM Sandy Alderson was interviewing potential replacements. One, Art Howe, was the man the A's eventually hired, and in Howe's interview, he began to tell Alderson about his managing philosophy, when Alderson interrupted him.

"We're not interested in your philosophy," Alderson told him. "We're trying to decide if you fit with ours."

For all the talk of Brad Pitt and Billy Beane and the culture wars of scouts versus spreadsheets, it was in that interview where baseball changed forever. Alderson would ask why baseball teams changed philosophies whenever they hired a new manager, which, to Alderson was a mid-level position. The front office came first. The manager -- after a baseball history of Casey Stengel and John McGraw, Leo Durocher and Tommy Lasorda, in which the manager was the face of the front office -- didn't matter anymore.

This is how the Washington Nationals view the managerial position. It isn't important, not worth paying for, and it's certainly not deserving of the credit or respect for the 192 games the team won under Baker.

The analytics crowd, among others who are tripping over themselves to sound smart and rational, as if team owners are to be given the benefit of the doubt to make the smart and rational move because they are rich, are arguing the Nationals simply need a more analytics-based manager, to give them a "better chance" to win. As if the next manager can do better than 97 wins, home-field advantage, three remarkable pitching performances from their two best pitchers, Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer, and a 4-1 lead with Scherzer on the mound in Game 5 at home. Sometimes, there isn't a formula. Sometimes, the other team wins.

The Nationals are a bad organization because they've allowed themselves to engage in the silly pity party that is curses, fan talk and the easiest excuse for an organization that refuses to look in the mirror. They're not cursed. They're cheap. In July, ownership scheduled a Sunday makeup doubleheader at Nationals Park when the team was flying out that night for a road trip. They wound up losing three of their next four games.

They've listened to their team be called cursed. They've listened to Dusty Baker be called cursed. The worse part of it is they seem to believe it, which is nonsensical, considering the Washington edition of the franchise has been in existence only 12 seasons, the first seven of which it never even reached .500. Nevertheless, the Nationals lost to the Cubs in the division series, panicked and fired their manager. This move doesn't make them "all-in" for 2018, as if this move somehow makes them a better team. All it did was expose the organization for being responsible for unnecessary upheaval to which now the players, fighting both opponents and their owners, must adjust.

As for Baker, the team fired him because it never really wanted him in the first place. He was Rizzo's fallback after the Bud Black deal fell apart. The team did not commit to him, even after two first-place finishes, forcing him to squirm after every inning of the playoffs to determine if he'd be employed next year. He is 14th on the all-time managerial wins list, a three-time manager of the year and a guy who has taken every team he has ever managed over the past 24 years to the playoffs. Unless his successor is La Russa, his successor will not be able to say that.

If the Nationals are cursed of anything, it's that they're too smart for their own good. By the arrogance of thinking they can win with such organizational disdain for the managerial position. By the eternal, unforgivable arrogance of 2012, when the franchise won 98 games, was arguably the best team in baseball, had Strasburg healthy, but refused to use him in the playoffs, even in relief, because the organization believed it had discovered the magic formula to prevent injuries. They didn't let Strasburg pitch, allowing the Cardinals to beat them in Game 5. It was arguably the worst personnel decision a team has ever made, trying to look smart while playing to lose. If there is a curse surrounding the Nationals, it is that the players are cursed by the family signing their paychecks.

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