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The Nationals Wanted Dusty Baker to Win Three Games—Not 192

On Friday, Washington announced that it would not renew Baker’s contract. He leaves with a pair of NL East titles and not enough postseason victories.

Divisional Round - Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals - Game Five Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

My enduring memory of Dusty Baker will be the way I saw him after the last game of the Nationals’ 2016 season. That game was a loss, of course, as has been the final game of each of the four seasons the Nats have made the playoffs, including the past two under Baker’s watch. In 2016, as it would be almost exactly a year later, the loss came in Game 5 of the NLDS. This one arrived at the hands of the Dodgers; the Nationals had a 1–0 lead until they didn’t, and then Clayton Kershaw marched out of the bullpen, and that was that—the end of a 95-win season that began, as so many recent Washington seasons have, with predictions that they’d win it all. After the game, the Nationals showered and dressed quietly in the clubhouse, taking questions from reporters. On my way out, I glanced into the manager’s office, and there was Dusty, his feet up on his desk, all alone, hands folded behind his head as he gazed calmly at nothing in particular.

After two seasons, his time with the Nationals is now over. The team declined to renew his contract on Friday, apparently against general manager Mike Rizzo’s wishes. The well-traveled skipper, who has also spent stretches at the helms of the Giants, Cubs, and Reds, will have to look elsewhere—a multitude of options await him—while Washington will once more begin the hunt for someone able to lead the young team to greater heights.

Dusty was the manager I grew up with. I’m a Giants fan since birth, and it was Dusty I watched gnaw on toothpicks along the dugout fence at Candlestick. It was Dusty I watched christen AT&T (then Pac Bell) Park, and it was Dusty who oversaw the most mythic heights of Barry Bonds’s career. It was Dusty whose boy ran straight to home plate in the midst of play in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series, and whose boy’s rescue by a stampeding, just-scored J.T. Snow is held up even now as a miracle in San Francisco. It was Dusty who, in celebration of a seemingly airtight 5–0 lead in the seventh inning of the would-be World Series–sealing Game 6, handed the game ball to starter Russ Ortiz as soon as the pitcher came out of the game—just in time for the Giants to collapse, losing that game, the next night’s, and what should have been the Giants’ first championship in San Francisco. I’m one of those dreadful people who’ve picked up their adopted home’s team along the way—Washington, in my case. In Dusty’s first home game with the Nationals, the Marlins came to town with their just-hired batting assistant, and I posted a picture from the nosebleeds: BARRY BONDS V DUSTY BAKER.

Many Nats fans will be glad to see Dusty go, and I regret to say that I understand it. In Washington, he was every bit as infuriatingly old-school as he’s ever been: Consider that his rationale for starting Gio González in this year’s doomed NLDS Game 5 was that González might be mad enough to want “redemption” for starting 2012’s doomed NLDS Game 5. (This time, González gave up three runs on three hits and lasted just three innings.) He infamously shuffles—flails?—through pitchers in the postseason. He is the reason the Great Strasburg Ruckus came about, seemingly unable to explain his pitcher’s illness without launching rafts of conspiracy and Stras-directed disdain.

He is also the man who was in charge of—if not exactly responsible for, since only the great baseball manager in the sky could have brought about quite that many catastrophes—the rip-your-heart-out end of the 2017 season. It is a cliché to say that sports can gut you, but here it is all the same; I walked around for days after the Nats’ collapse against the Cubs feeling a deep, raw loss. How can you welcome back—much less pay, perhaps extravagantly, for the privilege to welcome back—someone who made you feel that way about your team two years running? I get it, is what I’m trying to say: After the 2002 World Series, Dusty was gone from San Francisco, too. Washington isn’t even the second city to reach this point of grief-turned-frustration: Dusty’s teams have now dropped 10 straight postseason close-out games, an MLB record. He last won a playoff series in 2003, just before managing the Steve Bartman game and watching the Cubs tumble out of the NLCS. The Nationals are the third team to decline to renew his contract; the Reds fired him outright in 2013 after an end-of-season skid culminated in a wild-card loss to Pittsburgh.

And yet. Dusty’s Nationals won 95 and 97 games. Five of the last six teams he’s managed have won at least 90 games. He has been revered throughout the clubhouses he’s overseen, and yet still, somehow, we keep finding ourselves having versions of this conversation. The team’s next manager will be the Nationals’ seventh since they arrived in Washington in 2005. That manager will be Bryce Harper’s fourth in seven seasons, coming on board just as the franchise star enters his last season before free agency. Few in Washington, a city increasingly prone to sports fatalism, even entertain the possibility of Harper sticking around, and so here we are again.

“I expected to be here,” Baker said when the Nats clinched in 2016. “Now our next step is to get to the next level.” Somehow, against every indication of talent and regular-season grit, his Washington squad never did.