Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. -– George Santayana
WASHINGTON -- Dusty Baker remembers the past. Perhaps, more than anyone else in today’s game, he remembers it. A veteran’s veteran with nearly five decades of experience as a player, coach and manager, he loves to spin yarns about the old days. How he and roommate Ralph Garr used to go fishing during spring training when they were rookies. How Hank Aaron told him it’s OK to be nervous -- just don’t be scared. How he has been around long enough to share a dugout with Satchel Paige.
Baker’s memory of the past is precisely what led him to Quantico this past Monday. The National League East champs had a day off between their regular-season finale and the start of playoff workouts, and so their skipper found himself an hour south of Nationals Park, along the shores of the Chopawamsic Creek, where half a century ago he’d first been indoctrinated into the Marines.
“Something told me to go,” Baker said.
He didn’t bring his wife or his kids. He didn’t bring any of the countless friends who constantly surround him, often seated right beside him in his office on game days. He didn’t bring any of his players. Just him and his thoughts.
“I had a real out-of-body day, so to speak," he said. "I just reflected and thought about my time in the Marines and thought about what I could gather from there as far as leadership is concerned and bring back to my club.”
If Baker sounds more like the manager of an upstart, upset-minded bunch of ballplayers than the pilot of a powerhouse squad that ran away with its fourth division title in six seasons, clinching the division earlier than any team in the past 15 years, you’ll have to forgive him. After all, even though he has been at the helm in D.C. for only two seasons, he knows all about Washington’s rap sheet.
He knows about 2012, when the top-seeded Washington Nationals -- in their first playoff appearance since relocating from Montreal -- were one out from the NL Championship Series but lost to the wild-card St. Louis Cardinals, who rallied for four runs off closer Drew Storen. He knows about 2014, when Storen blew the save in Game 2 of the division series, which the wild-card San Francisco Giants went on to win in 18 innings, a backbreaker that lead to a second straight early exit for top-seeded Washington. He knows about 2016 because he watched from the dugout as his higher-seeded Nats coughed up a 2-1 series lead to the Los Angeles Dodgers by losing Games 4 and 5 -- both tight contests that were tied late -- for their third consecutive NLDS collapse. He knows all about the past, and he’s determined not to repeat it. “Don’t think about what you haven’t done,” he says. “Think about what you can control, which is like the power of now. We’re in now.”
For the Nationals, whose 97 wins were more than those of any other NL team not called the Dodgers, there never has been a better time to win a playoff series (or three) than right now. The lineup -- which features speedster Trea Turner, hit machine Daniel Murphy, slugger Ryan Zimmerman and MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, and just got some guy named Harper back from the DL -- is stacked. Reigning Pitcher of the Month Stephen Strasburg is as healthy and as dominant as he ever has been, partnering with Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez to give Washington arguably the best big three in baseball (they each finished among the NL’s top five in ERA). Perhaps most importantly, the bullpen, which has played a key role in each of Washington’s fall failures, is as good a unit as the Nats have ever had heading into the postseason. Buoyed by the July acquisitions of closer Sean Doolittle and setup men Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler, Washington’s relievers went from a 5.20 ERA (last in the NL) and 14 blown saves (T-12th) in the first half to a 3.54 ERA (third) and three blown saves since the All-Star break (first).
Yes, Washington finds itself matched up against a Chicago club that posted the NL’s best record in the second half and, at last glance, was still the defending World Series champion. But the 2017 Cubs, who finished with 11 fewer wins than a year ago, are a far cry from the 2016 juggernaut. In other words, now is as good a time as any for the Nats to finally break their second-season seal. But hey, no pressure.
“Our desire to win supersedes any exterior pressure from previous failures,” said Scherzer, who was the starter in last year’s Game 5 loss to L.A. and whose recently tweaked hamstring could be the largest obstacle in Washington’s quest not to repeat the past. “Because that carrot on the end of stick with winning is better than anything that anybody could ever say. But I will say that, in this clubhouse, I think there's a chip on the shoulder. This organization hasn't won a playoff series.” Not that winning four NL East titles in six years isn’t an achievement.
“When you win a division, that's a big deal,” said veteran outfielder Jayson Werth, who’s in his seventh season with the Nationals and has been there for all four division titles. And all three early exits. “Once you get in, all bets are off. Anything can happen. That Dodgers series last year was some of the best baseball I've ever been a part of. When you win a division, there's a lot that you can hang your hat on. Would it be nice to win? Yeah. I've been to the postseason 10 times, and I've won once. You're not guaranteed to win anything.”
Perhaps nobody in a Nationals uniform knows that better than Baker.
In 22 seasons on the bench, Baker has 1,863 regular-season wins on his résumé, most among active managers and 14th all time. He has nabbed three Manager of the Year awards, won seven division titles and been to the playoffs eight times. But the 68-year-old skipper has never won a World Series ring (not as a manager, anyway). That relative lack of postseason success, combined with Washington’s absolute lack of playoff prosperity, has led to a perception that if Baker -- whose two-year deal expires at the end of this season and whose lack of a contract extension has grown increasingly conspicuous -- can’t lead the Nats to at least an NLDS victory, he won’t be asked to return. In reality, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“We're both confident that he'll be back with us,” general manager Mike Rizzo said. “But we haven't had any conversations about it, and we will not do so until we finalize this season.”
Waiting until the offseason to re-up a manager who has averaged 96 wins and won a pair of pennants might seem unorthodox, especially when you consider Clint Hurdle recently received a four-year extension from the Pirates while in the midst of consecutive losing campaigns. But it’s more or less standard procedure for Washington.
“That’s how they do things,” said one NL exec of Nationals ownership, which last year waited until a month before the deadline to exercise Rizzo’s option despite the GM’s strong track record.
For what it’s worth, Baker is way too busy trying to exorcise demons -- his and the franchise’s -- to be bothered.
“Not really,” Washington’s skipper said earlier this week when asked whether he has given any thought to what lies beyond the immediate task at hand. He admitted that, regardless of what happens in the playoffs, he’d like to come back next year and thinks the chances of that happening are good. But he knows that conversation won’t happen until after the season. In the meantime, he’s more focused on the present than the future.
“I’m concentrating on today.”
And on not repeating the past.