WASHINGTON -- If you subscribe to the philosophy that the personality of a baseball team reflects the personality of its manager, then the Washington Nationals will be a completely different team under Dusty Baker than they were under Matt Williams. That’s because Baker is the complete opposite of Williams.
For starters, he has a pulse.
We know this because Baker is a human being. And we know that because he made it abundantly clear during his introductory news conference at Nationals Park on Thursday.
In the same interview room where the closed-off Williams repeatedly sat stone-faced night after night, crushing loss after crushing loss, and spewed robotic clichés about having a game to win tomorrow -- the same space where barely more than a month ago, the former Nationals manager sat down following his team’s elimination and with a straight face said, “It was a good night for everyone” -- Baker was more open than John Wall coming off a double screen from Marcin Gortat and Kris Humphries.
He talked about love, family and being a black man. He talked about being a product of divorce and growing up without grandparents. He referred to himself as “International Bakey” and admitted that he sometimes takes managerial advice from his 16-year-old son. He joked, smiled and laughed his way through the interview, revealing his human side more times in 35 minutes than Williams did during the entire 2015 season.
A breath of fresh air? Baker was more like a walking, talking thousand-gallon hyperbaric chamber filled with oxygen imported straight from the Rocky Mountains.
When he slipped into a crisp white Nationals jersey for a photo opportunity (he’ll wear the same No. 12 that he wore throughout his entire 19-year playing career), Baker mugged for the cameras, turning and sashaying as if he were on a Paris runway. “My mom used to model,” he quipped, an army of photographers capturing each and every pose while a room jam-packed with reporters busted out in laughter.
Asked how the Nationals’ roster measures up to other teams he has taken over, Baker -- who has made a career out of resurrecting moribund clubs -- told a story involving his buddy Al Attles, the former NBA player. “Beyond compare, this is the best talent. That’s why I was excited about coming here. Most of the other teams were at bottom or near bottom and had to be built from the bottom. I asked Al Attles, how come I always get teams and have to build ’em up? He said, ‘Dusty, you do more with less.’ I told him I was ready to do more with more.”
More chuckles ensued.
Moments later, when someone asked why, at age 66 and after a two-year absence from the game, he’s coming back for more, Baker flipped the switch from comedy to candor. “I’ve been pretty fortunate and blessed in my life,” said Baker, a former All-Star who won a World Series as a player but has never earned a ring in 20 seasons of managing. “Only thing I’ve missed in my life are, like I tell people, I signed out of high school so I missed being the big man on a college campus, and I missed the love of grandparents because both died before I was born. The only thing left is a championship.”
When the subject shifted to the challenge of a grizzled veteran like himself evolving in today’s analytics era, Baker got downright existential. “The great Bill Walsh, one of my mentors, told me that every once in a while, you have to recreate yourself as a man and a person. I’d like to think I’m in the middle of a recreation now. I’ll let you know when I get a finished product.”
After fielding a question about the best way to unite a dysfunctional clubhouse (“love is the key”) and another about what kinds of immediate changes he plans on making (“I don’t believe in mandating anything”), the conversation once again focused on how a perceived old-school skipper like Baker can stay current.
“Adaptation is no problem for me,” he said. “My friends call me ‘The Chameleon’ because they think I can adapt any place, any time, anywhere. I would like to think that I transcend different generations -- like some musicians. I mean, Stevie Wonder still sounds good. The Doors might sound even better.”
Still more chuckles.
You get the point. Dusty Baker is a human being. A person with feelings and emotions and a sense of humor. The anti-Matt Williams, if you will.
There’s no denying that the Nationals’ front office egregiously botched the hiring process by walking down the aisle with Bud Black last week only to get separated at the altar (it’s still not entirely clear who left whom). But after Thursday’s news conference, there’s also no denying that, ultimately, the Nats got the right person for the job.
Does Baker have a reputation for ruining his hurlers’ arms? You bet. But new pitching coach Mike Maddux has a reputation for being good at his job. Like, really good.
Is Baker as plugged in to advanced metrics as some of the game’s younger managers? No way. But Washington’s analytics department is.
What Baker does have -- a skill that was on full display Thursday -- is the ability to loosen up a room full of uptight people. The ability to relax the mood and put smiles on people’s faces. That may not seem all that important, but anyone who spent time in the Nationals' clubhouse this past season can tell you it’s absolutely crucial.
That’s right. Not all locker rooms are created equal.
There are some clubhouses around the league that feel more like frat houses. The Baltimore Orioles come to mind, with their pingpong and pool tables, their seemingly never-ending card games, their wacky corps of relievers that kicks a soccer ball around on the outfield grass before every game. Win or lose, when you walk into the home clubhouse at Camden Yards, you get the sense that Buck Showalter’s players genuinely enjoy their co-workers, their boss and their job.
When you walked into the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, at least this past season, you got the sense that Matt Williams’ players barely even knew each other. On any given day, it felt like 25 toddlers engaging in parallel play, all there to perform the same activity but never really interacting with one another. Punch in. Punch out. Keep your head down and go about your business. And whatever you do, don’t smile. It felt more like a corporation than a baseball team.
If ever a group of people needed a change in leadership, it was the 2015 Washington Nationals.
That’s not to say that Dusty Baker will magically cure all that ails the club he’s taking over. But he’s a damn good starting point -- if for no other reason than he’s a human being.