When Johnny B. “Dusty” Baker returned to Nationals Park this past weekend as the visiting manager for the Houston Astros, he did so as the winningest manager in Washington Nationals history.
Wait, not just Nationals history — franchise history, dating all the way back to the birth of the Montreal Expos in 1969.
Baker, 72, had a .593 winning percentage (192-132 in 2016 and 2017), which puts him on top of everyone else, from Felipe Alou to Davey Johnson.
“But it was only two seasons,” Baker said when I told him this.
They were, though, the two best seasons that any manager in the history of this franchise ever had — except for the World Series-winning season, of course. Baker led the Nationals to two National League East titles in 2016 and 2017 but his teams exited the playoffs in the first round each of those years.
The World Series is on Dave Martinez’s resume, and even though Martinez has a 278-304 record over five seasons in Washington, he is also the manager who has the 2019 World Series championship on his resume. He was the manager who was right for that time, and he is the manager to see the Nationals through this “rebooting” as general manager Mike Rizzo calls it.
But believe this — Baker would have still been the manager in 2018 and perhaps beyond if it had been up to Rizzo. Baker was fired on the orders of the Lerners, and now he may outlast the Nationals owners, who have put the team up for sale, in the game.
Baker loved the city when he was managing here. “I enjoyed the town, enjoyed the diversity, the educational level here,” he said. “For a two-year period, this was about as good as a two-year period I’ve had in my career.”
Everywhere he goes, he wins, and then some brilliant owner says that’s not good enough.
He has outlasted owners who said that in San Francisco and Chicago. In Cincinnati, the Reds have gone 532-685 since Baker, who went 509-463 over six years there, was fired after the 2013 season. This year they are 9-25. The owner there who fired him might as well disappear, too.
In Houston, Baker picked up the pieces of the cheating scandal that nearly destroyed the franchise and, since taking over in 2020, has a record of 147-110 (including 2 of 3 from Washington) — the best manager’s winning percentage (.570) in Astros history. He took the franchise to the World Series last season.
For that, Astros owner Jim Crane gave Baker a one-year extension. Another genius.
Baker got a video tribute Friday night from the Nationals and a standing ovation from the sparse crowd that was in attendance. “It always seems like they appreciate me more when I came back then when I left,” Baker said before the game, laughing.
The Dusty Baker appreciation club is a big one. Martinez, who played for Baker in San Francisco in 1993 and 1994, is a card-carrying member.
“He’s a great man, he really is,” Martinez said. “Not only as a manager but as a person. I truly learned a lot from him, not only playing for him, but over the years we’ve kept in contact. He is truly an unbelievable person, and the record as a manager speaks for itself.”
Yes it does. Over 25 seasons, he has a record of 2009-1746, recently becoming one of 12 managers to win 2,000 games and the first black man in the dugout to do so. He has taken every team he has managed — the Giants, the Chicago Cubs, the Reds, the Nationals and now the Astros — to multiple playoff appearances.
The one hole in his resume — the lack of a World Series championship — is dwarfed by his remarkable, lengthy success everywhere he has been, the first manager to reach the playoffs and win a division title with five different teams. He is a future Hall of Famer.
One thing Baker noted since the last time he was here in 2017 — all the new construction. “It has really picked up,” he said. “I wish I had invested in a couple of these buildings.”
His old bosses, the Lerners, might be willing to sell one of their buildings to him — cheap.
Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.