WASHINGTON — A pregame video to honor Dusty Baker’s time at the helm of the Nationals culminated in a tribute to his 2,000th managerial-win milestone as fans cheered for the revered manager as he made his first return to Nationals Park in five years on Friday.
“Most of the time, they seem like they appreciate me more when I came back than when I left,” Baker said before the game with a laugh. “I always wanted to leave a place in better shape than when I came. That was my goal.”
Baker, 72, moved past Leo Durocher for sole possession of 10th place on the all-time managerial wins list with his 2,009th career win in the 6-1 Astros’ victory on Friday night. The Astros hired Baker prior to the 2020 season and last year, he became the first manager to lead five teams to a division title.
“And I remember [former Giants general manager] Al Rosen told me that managers were born to be fired, and I was like, ‘Nah, not me,’” Baker said. “But you know, a couple times my contract wasn’t renewed, one time I officially was fired, and one time I left, because I was there long enough. It’s different. It’s way different. The good thing is, I’ve seen a lot of people that were still here, even when I left. A lot of the auxiliary people, people in the clubhouse, security guards, the people I really appreciated when I was here, and I felt a closeness to them. They were what makes this whole thing possible, and what makes this thing click.”
Baker managed the Nationals to a 192-132 record from 2016-17 (back-to-back NLDS appearances) before the team parted ways with him in October of 2017. Less than 10 days later, the Nationals hired current manager Dave Martinez, who played under Baker on the Giants, to take over. Martinez was in center field for Baker’s first managerial win on April 6, 1993.
“It wasn’t awkward, ‘cause it wasn’t Davey’s fault,” Baker said. “I replaced Matt Williams [Nationals manager from 2014-15], one of my former players, and it wasn’t his fault, either. I talked to Matt before I came here. I think I talked to Davey after he got here. Davey’s a great choice. Davey played for me. Davey was one of my favorite players.”
Martinez went on to lead the Nationals to their first World Series championship over the Astros in 2019. That offseason, Baker was hired by Houston as its manager for his fifth managerial job. Even though Baker and Martinez have been on opposing teams numerous times in Spring Training — the Astros and Nationals share a training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla. — Friday night was the first time they faced off in a regular-season game.
“We remained friends throughout the years,” Martinez said. “What we do on the field, what we do, is something different than the relationship we have off the field. We share a passion for wine, we share a passion for fishing. I’ve learned a lot, not only in the baseball world, but who he is and who he perceives to be helped me become the person that I am as well.”
It has been five years since Baker managed at Nats Park, where his photograph hangs in a hallway of pictures that lead to the Nationals’ clubhouse. A lot has changed in the Navy Yard ballpark area since that time, which struck Baker as he made his way to the stadium.
“It’s kind of strange,” Baker said pregame. “They’re doing a lot of building around here. Man, I sure wish I was invested in a couple buildings or in some big cranes. … I’m telling you, this has really, really picked up. I stopped by on the way here today to see a friend, and I’d been over there many times, and I couldn’t find it. They’ve certainly built this area up. It’s just a little strange coming here, coming out of this side of the dugout. I haven’t come out of this side of the dugout in a while. But I had great memories here. The people were great. I enjoyed the town. Like I’ve said many times, I enjoyed the diversity, the educational level here. For a two-year period, this is probably as good of a period as I’ve had anywhere.”
While Baker has been making his impact on the Astros — he became just the 12th AL/NL manager to achieve 2,000 wins earlier this month — his influence still is felt by Martinez in his managerial approach with the Nationals. Martinez described Baker as “an unbelievable person” and lauded him for being a players’ manager.
“Just the constant positivity — that’s Dusty,” Martinez said. “When things go down, he finds a way to lift you up. I learned a lot from him in that respect. Not chasing the game, letting the game come to him — I learned that from Dusty as well. Just watching him and listening to him speak, he’s awesome.”
Martinez has seen firsthand how Baker is making an impact on future generations of baseball for years to come, too. Baker’s son, Darren, is an infield prospect in the Nationals’ Minor League organization for the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks.
“He taught him the right way,” said Martinez.