Well it didn’t take long to need a special edition of the column. A day after Don Mattingly officially became Marlins manager, a move you read about here last week, A new manager has been found for the dysfunctional mess that is the Washington Nationals, and it’s Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker. He hasn’t managed since the 2013 season ended in Cincinnati, and at 66 he may be a bit old to start over again, but he’s not the oldest. Jack McKeon was 72 when he took the reins of his last team.
Baker goes back to when there were no divisions in baseball. As a player he broke in with Atlanta in 1968, the last year before divisional play began. In 1976 ghe left the baseball oblivion that was Atlanta at that time for the much more verdant pastures of Chavez Ravine. With the Dodgers he made 3 trips to the World Series, winning it in 1981. He was an All-Star twice while playing for Tommy Lasorda. Whether he hugs his troops as Lasorda did, Baker has been manager of the year 3 times over, all with the Giants. He got them to game 7 of the 2002 World Series, then was off to Chicago. In 2003 the Cubs nearly reached the World Series before the infamous Steve Bartman moment. That was their one chance, and Baker’s. His last managerial shot up to now was a stint with the Reds between 2008 and 2013. He, Cito Gaston and Ron Washington are the only 3 black managers to pilot a team into the World Series. Neither Baker nor Washington has won a fall classic.
Instead of cigarettes or chewing tobacco, he’ll keep toothpicks at the ready when he needs something to chew on. His tendency to lick his lips during moments of crisis has earned him the nickname “The Lizard,” from renowned sports talk show host Jim Rome. His health is suspect. He’s dealt with heart issues for a number of years and had a minor stroke that hospitalized him some years back. All this needs to be said because he’s taking over the most underachieving team in recent memory-the 2014 and 2015 Washington Nationals. In both seasons they were predicted early on to be prohibitive favorites to make the World Series. They made the playoffs in 2014 losing out to the eventual champion Giants. But this year’s team was an unmitigated disaster which cost manager Matt Williams and all his coaches their jobs. They were awful out of the gate, making 24 errors in April of which 9 belonged to their shortstop Ian Desmond-a free agent as of this Friday. Meantime the Mets ran off 11 wins in a row and were in first place much of the early season. The Nats passed the Mets when they struggled to hit in June and July. The Nats’ one move at the trade deadline would prove to be the biggest embarrassment in DC since the Denny McClain trade. They got Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies. He’s been a closer forever, and his arrival put their closer Drew Storen’s nose out of joint. The Mets passed them by on August 4. In a series the Nationals had to have starting on Labor Day, the Mets swept them in 3 games Washington was leading in the 6th inning or later. In the middle game they were up 7-1 but six walks and 3 hits in one inning brought the Mets back. After giving up the game-winning home run of the last game of that series, the already frustrated Storen in spite of his Stanford education smashed his pitching hand against a locker. End of season, thank you for coming. Papelbon, after blowing two saves, was ejected for throwing above the head of Manny Machado of the Orioles. An insane technicality allowed him to play though he was suspended. With the appeal still pending came the kind of public scene the new manager will have to work to prevent. Papelbon, upset with star outfielder Bryce Harper, grabbed him in a chokehold which was clearly seen by millions on TV. The announcers and MLB tried to downplay it but not one TV viewer I talked to agreed with their minimalist perspective. This was a serious incident which the manager claimed to be aware of. He let Papelbon pitch the 9th and get hammered. Now, the team isn’t his responsibility. It belongs to the former player, manager and part time broadcaster Dusty Baker.
A couple of men we broadcast in their minor league days have birthdays today. Armando Benitez is 43 and Matt Lawton is 44. We saw Benitez in AA with the Bowie Bay Sox. Mets fans remember him for serving up a game-tying home run in the bottom of the 9th at Yankee Stadium in game 1 of the 2000 World Series. Matt Lawton was one of ours, in 1995 with what was briefly called the Hardware City (New Britain,) Rock Cats. That team is about to leave New Britain, CT after 33 years and move to Hartford. One of my favorite interview guests, Dwight Evans is 64 today. While interviewing him in a 1991 spring training setting, I told him I remembered his home run in the 9th inning to tie game 3 of the 1975 World Series. As great as the series was, he told me that was his biggest thrill of the 7 games. In later years, we would play great moments from baseball’s past during pitching changes. When we played his home run we spliced in Evans talking about what a thrill it was for him. And although this man died in 2012, today was the birthday of Bob Feller and I can’t let that one slide. I met him in 1993, also in New Britain when the Red Sox were still the parent club. He was doing a rare personal appearance, and I consider myself privileged and honored to do a short interview with him. In his world, if I didn’t call him “Sir,” and didn’t ask “Please,” about an autograph or an interview, that was that. No appeal. 8 years later, my broadcast partner and I stood in a hallway in the ballpark in Lakewood, New Jersey as Bob Feller held court. The media surrounding him all knew his reputation, and let him talk without interruption. It was as close to a royal audience as this commoner ever will get.0