Monday, May 30, 2016
A Man in Purple, A Man in Red
As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.”
That’s the opening line to Prince’s classic song “Let’s Go Crazy”, a you-can’t-sit-still-to-this, guitar-drenched pep talk about taking life’s punches and returning a defiant and overwhelming flurry in return.
Last year, the Nationals could have used The Purple One’s encouragement - regularly.
Even by D.C. sports standards, the Nats’ 2015 season was a disaster. The dead favorite to win the World Series, they failed to make the playoffs. The campaign ended, essentially, with Jonathan Papelbon choking teammate Bryce Harper. Officially, the Nats finished second in the NL East, but the meltdown was so disgusting that it cost skipper Matt Williams, the 2014 NL Manager of the Year, his job.
The Nationals tapped Dusty Baker, a 20-year managerial veteran, to replace Williams. Forensic evidence indicates he wasn’t the first choice - that honor likely goes to Bud Black, former San Diego Padres manager. But after reportedly offending Black with a low-ball contract offer and subsequently failing to come to terms, the Nats turned to Baker, the new top candidate, all baseball and financial factors considered.
Procedurally and politically, the selection was awkward, but nearly a month into the 2016 season, Baker’s on his the way toward changing the label on Nationals’ brass from “cheap and dysfunction” to “shrewd and brilliant.” While April series’ against Atlanta, Philadelphia, Miami and Minnesota haven’t represented the stiffest competition, Baker nonetheless has Washington in first place in the NL East with a 14-4 record through last Sunday.
A team’s record is, of course, its ultimate judgment, but there’s more going on in Washington than just wins and losses. Williams won 96 games in 2014, his first as a major league manager. But after losing in the first round of the playoffs that year and facing massive expectations in 2015, Williams lost his way and, ultimately, the team. As the 2015 season disintegrated, Williams remained poised, professional and supportive of his players (all positive traits), but his inability to emotionally connect with players and build strong relationships – the kind that will survive a 162-game schedule and inevitable adversity – was apparent. Despite obvious baseball acumen, Williams was a sterile leader, a man far more like Mr. Spock than Captain Kirk. Simply put, baseball in D.C. wasn’t what baseball should be: fun.
Enter Dusty Baker, a master communicator with a natural way with people – the anti-Matt Williams.
He wasted no time getting to work.
At his introductory press conference, Baker donned a Nationals jersey and struck a few playful model-on-the-runway poses. When asked about his age, he offered this gem: “I don’t know how old I am sometimes – and it really doesn’t matter. Not to sound cocky or nothing but I don’t see a whole bunch of dudes that look better than me now.” Somewhere a perplexed Williams must have raised a curious brow.
With the “endearing humor” block checked, Baker got more substantive.
When asked about his approach to winning, Baker cited advice he received from Bill Russell and Bill Walsh. “They told me a team has to be close. I can bring X’s and O’s…they said love was the key. I want to get this team together as soon as possible, top to bottom. The great teams that I have been on and organizations I’ve been in…everybody had a positive attitude.” It was a nameless acknowledgement of Williams’s greatest fault and exactly what Nats fans wanted to hear.
And boy has Baker delivered to date. Nearly 20 games into the season, the Nats are playing loose, cheering teammates and routinely hugging Baker in the dugout (yes…hugging). They are together. They are positive. They are winning. In six months on the job, one man – Dusty Baker – has flipped an organization’s mood. He’s human serotonin.
Every now and then life intersects with an individual who shines a little brighter than the rest. They break down barriers, bring people together and generally make any situation more fun. Prince’s music had that effect. He wore purple. Dusty Baker has the magic too, and right now, he looks fabulous in red.