By Howard Fendrich
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON _ Dusty Baker is the new manager of the Washington Nationals, meaning Major League Baseball avoids what would have been its first start to a season since 1988 with zero black skippers.
“I am certain that the Nationals, like all of our clubs, hired the best person for the job. It is encouraging that in this case the best person turned out to be African American,” baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “This is a positive step and I am intent on making continued progress on diversity in the managerial ranks going forward.”
The Nationals announced Baker’s hiring on Tuesday, nearly a month after firing Matt Williams, whose lack of prior experience turned out to be a problem as the club missed the playoffs.
In the 66-year-old Baker, the Nationals get someone who has worked 20 seasons as a manager in the majors and whose 1,671-1,504 record _ a .526 winning percentage _ includes the second-most victories among active managers.
He led the San Francisco Giants to the 2002 World Series and reached the post-season a half-dozen other times. Baker also managed the Chicago Cubs and, most recently, the Cincinnati Reds, who fired him in 2013.
Baker won NL Manager of the Year honours in 1993, 1997 and 2000. He retired as a player in 1986 after 19 years in the majors, winning a World Series title with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981.
“We were looking for a manager to help us achieve our ultimate goal of competing for a World Series championship,” Nationals owner Ted Lerner said in a statement. “During our broad search process we met with many qualified candidates, and ultimately it was clear that Dusty’s deep experience was the best fit for our ballclub.”
The Nationals were said to have settled on hiring former San Diego Padres manager Bud Black last week before contract talks with him broke down.
In the news release about Baker’s hiring, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said: “We are excited to bring him to Washington and put his steady demeanour, knowledge and many years in the game to work in our favour.”
When the Seattle Mariners fired Lloyd McClendon last month, it left no black managers in baseball. No season had started without at least one since 1988; in April that year, Frank Robinson replaced Cal Ripken Sr. with the Baltimore Orioles. Robinson later managed the Nationals.
Rizzo let Williams go a day after Washington, which had World Series aspirations, finished the regular season at 83-79, seven games behind the New York Mets in the NL East.
Williams, who played under Baker with the Giants, had never managed in the majors when he was hired for the 2014 season. The Nationals won their division and he was voted NL Manager of the Year.
He presided over a 2015 season filled with defeats, discord and the embarrassing spectacle of a dugout dustup between NL MVP front-runner Bryce Harper and teammate Jonathan Papelbon during a game the day after the team was eliminated from playoff contention.
Williams said he had no idea of the extent of the skirmish until much later in the day, even though he was in the dugout at the time, Williams said he hadn’t been aware of exactly what happened _ including that Papelbon grabbed Harper by the throat. None of his players or coaches told him about it right away, and he said he hadn’t asked to know more.
On the day he announced that Williams would not return, Rizzo was asked what sought in Williams’ replacement.
“Communication in the clubhouse, communication within the coaching staff, is vital,” Rizzo said on Oct. 5. “Experience is always helpful. It always adds a layer of expertise to anybody’s resume. We feel that where we’re at in our timetable of winning a championship, we certainly would lean toward someone that has some type of managerial experience, especially at the major league level.”
AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.