As is his way in almost every big league city, and especially those in which he has managed, Baker spent his first hours in Washington hunting down an old friend in the area by Nationals Park. He had been to that friend’s home many times before, but this time, he said, he couldn’t find it. Too much had changed. The Nationals are nearly unrecognizable from his time, too.
Since Baker last managed here in Game 5 of the 2017 National League Division Series, the Nationals slayed October, won a World Series demons, and watched an entire beloved core depart. Only one player from the 2017 NLDS roster, Victor Robles, will be active against Baker’s charging Astros — winners of 11 straight — this weekend. His former player and fishing buddy, Dave Martinez, will be sitting where Baker used to sit in the home dugout instead — just like Baker took his former player Matt Williams’s seat there after the 2015 season.
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“It wasn’t awkward. Cause it wasn’t Davey’s fault,” Baker said of watching his job go to a manager with no experience after leading the Nationals to two straight playoff runs, both of which ended a few short outs of the league championship series. “Davey’s a great choice. Davey played for me. Davey was one of my favorite players. I have learned a lot from being around Joe Maddon. Davey’s a very good manager, and he’s an excellent fisherman.”
Baker has operated in proximity to his former team for three seasons, sharing the Astros’ West Palm Beach spring training home with the Nationals. He has watched his son, Darren, establish himself as a Nationals minor leaguer. The mutual respect he shares with Martinez was clear one spring training afternoon, when Martinez surprised Baker by sending his son out with the Nationals’ lineup card as his father brought out the Astros’.
“We remained friends throughout the years. 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,” Martinez said. “So like I said, I’ve learned a lot not only in the baseball world, but as who he is and who he perceives to be, he helped me become the person that I am as well.”
Neither man would say so, but if there is any awkwardness to their relationship, it stems from that it was Martinez, not Baker, who won the World Series the Nationals brought Baker in to win. Baker and the Nationals were supposed to complete each other, to help each other end years of October disappointment and win their first titles together. As it happened, the Nationals got theirs without him. And after his beat-up Astros fell in six games to the Atlanta Braves in last year’s World Series, Baker is still waiting for his.
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But after becoming just the 12th manager in major league history to win 2,000 career games earlier this season, the 72-year-old isn’t waiting on much else in his career. He has managed so many places that he is even accustomed to returning to old haunts — and being greeted with warmth even in stadiums where he once felt left out in the cold.
“Most of the time, they seem like they appreciate me more when I came back than when I left,” said Baker, who the Nationals acknowledged with a tribute on the video screen just before Friday night’s game.
“The good thing is, I’ve seen a lot of people that were still here, even when I left,” Baker said. “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.”
Fans aren’t piling into Nationals Park as reliably as they did when Baker managed those star-studded teams, but those who were there at game time Friday night cheered him. Somehow, a pandemic, a World Series title, and a half-dozen apartment buildings had emerged since they had the chance to say thank you.
“I had great memories here. The people were great. I enjoyed the town,” Baker said. “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.”