Of all the sports played by professional athletes for large paying audiences, baseball is unique in two respects: it has the longest season with the most games played, and what happens on the field is more random, more out of human control, than all the others.
Both of these unique factors define the job of baseball manager. He can choose his players, and match them up for their most particular and complementary skills. His best pitchers can often be instructed to place the ball where hitters are most likely to hit it where a defensive player is positioned. But both these managerial choices of personnel and strategy, can, at any given moment, be completely overridden by what happens when a tapered cylindrical bat strikes a spherical ball thrown with high cunning and velocity.
Even a perfectly placed pitch, hit into the exact defensive zone anticipated by the manager, can, with a bad hop, or unexpected spin, or just harder contact by the hitter, turn the best laid plans of geniuses and stars into a defeating disaster. And that’s without considering the constant potential for human error.
This is why, although decisions about starters and substitutions, where to position defenders, when to ask batters to swing away or not are important, and add up over the course of a season, they may have little or no impact on who wins or loses any single game.
Much more influential, over the course of a 162-game regular season, and as many as 20 post-season playoff games, are the physical condition and mental focus of the players. Tuning those for season-long success is a baseball manager’s most important job. In short, managing the team trumps managing the game.
While there are managers, more than a few perhaps, who are better than Dusty Baker at in-game decision-making, he is among the best at keeping his clubhouse healthy, happy and ready. Players love playing for Dusty Baker and their level of play shows it. Over the course of a long career, his winning percentage, and the repeated judgments of his players testify to that. So does his record as manager of my beloved Washington Nationals: in his two years, the Nats won 95 and 97 games, won their regular-season division championships, and twice lost in the 5th and deciding game of their first playoff series.
The 2017 Nats lost Game 5 (9-8 to the Chicago Cubs) because one of the team’s steadiest veterans, Jayson Werth, lost a ball in the sun, their best catcher, Matt Wieters, esteemed more for his brain and careful preparation than the skills of his hands and feet, committed a pair of miscues on a single play, and their back-up catcher, Jose Lobaton committed an astonishing blunder, getting picked off first base. Lobaton was, at the time, not only the potential lead (or winning) run, he was behind the potential tying run on second base.
The first two catastrophes destroyed Baker’s strategic move of bringing in his best pitcher, Max Scherzer – one of the top 2 or 3 pitchers in the game – to keep a close game close. After Werth’s failure to catch a line drive, and Wieters’ failure to catch or block a pitch, compounded by then tossing the ball into right field, when he should have simply held it in his hand, the Cubs had a big lead again.
But, Baker’s Nats fought back, and had Lobaton not been picked off, might well have tied or led the game. They didn’t. They lost. And ten days later, Baker was fired.
Said General Manager Mike Rizzo: “Winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions is not enough. Our goal is to win a world championship.”
A bounce here, a catch there, a couple of player mistakes left uncommitted, and Baker’s Nats could have won their playoff, and maybe the next round as well, and maybe the World Series, too. In any of those cases, most people assume, Dusty would have kept his job.
Given his superb record, keeping a team on top in spite of an astonishing series of injuries to key players, winning 192 games in 2 seasons, Baker assumed he would be re-hired. He stayed around for 9 days after the playoff loss waiting to negotiate with the Nats. Nothing happened. Then he flew back home to Los Angeles, and while he was flying, “the team” came to what Rizzo calls a “consensus” decision: dump Dusty. They called to tell him the bad news the next day.
As I said before, legitimate questions can be raised about Baker’s game-management. But remember, baseball is a game that can be managed only to a limited degree. Unlike football, its plays cannot be diagrammed in advance, and unlike basketball, the movement of the ball on any given play cannot be planned or controlled. Even a hockey stick gives players more control in directing the puck than a baseball bat gives a hitter.
A football season comprises, at most 20 games, a basketball or a hockey season, even with extensive playoffs, might go 100. A baseball team can take the field for 182 games in a season, and keeping his players able to do their best in almost all of them is where Baker excels. Over 2 years, Dusty’s Nats won just under 60% of their games. But, as my grandmother would say, “Gornisht helfen,” it didn’t matter.
Frankly, although the heartless manner of its execution does bear some of Rizzo’s hallmarks, I’m guessing the decision wasn’t his. I’d pin it on ownership, the real estate mogul Ted Lerner and family, who lack Rizzo’s knowledge of the game, who are clueless as to what they are flushing away.
And like so many of today’s bosses, the Lerners and their overseer Rizzo could care less about what their workers, in this case the players, think. As Rizzo put it, “No, we didn’t take any advice or have any comments from the players on this.”
Sure, what do they know. With a distant ignorant boss calling the shots, the Nationals are in the same kind of trouble as the nation.