Dusty Baker is an underwhelming hire, but that's not a disaster in baseball
Ned Yost won a World Series last Sunday, proving definitively that managing a professional baseball team isn’t particularly difficult. Yost bested fellow staring-into-middle-distance specialist Terry Collins in a battle of two checkers-masters trying not to out-gaffe each other.
The Royals’ title had something to do with Collins failing to hook Matt Harvey in the final game of the series, but it had a lot more to do with one team simply playing better than the other. The series unfolded as it did because Daniel Murphy’s bat went cold, because Chris Young beat Bartolo Colon in an impromptu long-reliever competition, because Jacob deGrom didn’t pitch up to his usual standards. Not to underestimate Yost’s capacity for sabotage, but he couldn’t have sunk his team if he tried.
The baseball manager is a strange bird in the coaching world. The soccer manager organizes his team into a shape, instructing a forward to play centrally, pushing his defensive line higher, using four midfielders instead of three. The basketball coach gives his team a set of principles: they blitz the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls, space the floor on offense, look to slow the game down or push the tempo. The football coach controls the universe: he’s the author of a bible-thick playbook that details, in every imaginable scenario, where a player should go and what he should do.
By contrast, the baseball manager calls for a lefty shift once in a while, loafs out to the mound to take the ball from one pitcher and place it in the hand of another. He spends most of his time looking like an aged cosplayer in embroidered pajamas, showering the dugout floor with sunflower shells and muttering could use a hit here, Lou to his bench coach.
This is all to say that the Washington Nationals hired Dusty Baker on Tuesday, and it’s probably fine. Baker is a known quantity, which isn’t an altogether positive thing. On the one hand, he has managed the Giants, Cubs and Reds to division titles. On the other, he brutalizes his starting pitchers, dismisses statistics that would help him do his job better, and has a robust track record of underachieving in the postseason. He’s not a bad manager, but his shortcomings have persisted for so long that they have come to define him. The popular perception is that ol’ Dusty is just competent enough to get your team to the point at which it’s going to hurt like hell when he goes to his closer three batters too late in a playoff game.
Coaches in nearly every non-baseball sport are figures of frustration and anguish. No matter how much control they have over what’s occurring out on the field, it is always insufficient. These people are, by and large, control freaks. If they could, they would hook up their players to Playstation controllers and move them around with button presses. But they can’t, so they stand on the sideline pointing to a spot no one is looking at, bellowing instructions to which no one is listening. There’s a poignant pointlessness to this. Sports are too wild and fluid to be policed by some fellow with a gameplan and a clipboard.
The baseball manager accepts his helplessness. The odd dirt-kicking tantrum aside, skippers tend to operate in a mental-emotional state that’s only slightly more agitated than a napping dog’s. A baseball game is too slow and too far beyond the manager’s manipulative powers to get excited about with any regularity. The boss sends his first baseman up to the plate with two on and the batter raps an RBI double down the line, or he grounds into a double play. There’s not much to be done about it, no advice to be dispensed that would improve the player’s chances of success. No manager denies this reality. He’s as much as a spectator as we are.
What does a baseball manager do? He sets the lineup. He makes pitching changes. Out of public sight, he does this mysterious thing called “handling the clubhouse,” which we like to imagine means promoting team-wide harmony through inspirational speeches and the patient dispensation of gnomic wisdom, but probably involves wearily telling your Jonathan Papelbon types to take it down a notch. It’s not an unimportant job, but it’s a limited one.
From a fan perspective, the primary function of a manager is to steady you. At any given time, there are a small handful of skippers in baseball who have been around long enough and accrued enough wins to have acquired a reputation for knowing what they’re doing. Joe Maddon is like this; Mike Matheny is getting there. Over the course of a game, they might barely do anything — they bring in a reliever in the eighth, a pinch runner in the ninth, and that’s it — or they might do some granular, LaRussian tinkering, but mostly they are emanating competence. When the camera cuts to the bench, the fan feels comforted by the knowledge that they have a guy at the helm of their favorite team who’s unlikely to screw up.
In the end this, doesn’t count for a lot. Maddon is a fine tactician, but his keen baseball mind doesn’t have anywhere near the impact on a game as does one sweet swing of the bat from Kris Bryant. Even if Maddon makes a smart double-switch, he has only minimally nudged his team toward a positive outcome. But as a nerves-steeler, he’s peerless. When he decides to do something, you just feel like it’s a good call.
Dusty Baker is capable of winning a World Series with the Washington Nationals. The team is abundantly talented and Baker’s most notable skill is keeping players happy and unified, which is relevant considering the Nats experienced a rare sort of discord last season that genuinely seemed to crater the squad’s fortunes. Baker will do what he does, which is charm his subordinates, push his pitchers a little too far, and chew an ever-present toothpick.
As the 2016 season progresses, stories will circulate about how his human touch is exactly what the Nats need, or the beat writers will kvetch about Baker’s sabermetrics agnosticism and semi-catatonic demeanor. This will depend almost entirely upon results Baker won’t have much to do with. Fans will see him in the dugout, and he will make them a little nervous or a little aggravated, because that’s the effect Dusty Baker has on people. Having him in charge of the team you love doesn’t put you at ease, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work out splendidly regardless.