By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus
“If the baseball gods are smiling on the sides of Dave Roberts and Dusty Baker during the regular season, maybe poetic justice will give us a Dodgers-Nationals matchup in the NLCS. Just a thought.”
– Excerpt from “Dave & Dusty: Two Men, One Goal” featured in the April edition of MARQUEE Magazine.
NEW HAVEN (BASN) — When the late Jackie Robinson made his final public appearance, the Hall of Famer’s career was celebrated by Major League Baseball at the 1972 World Series.
Before he threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to Game Two, Robinson gave a brief speech thanking those who were in attendance. However, one of his other remarks he made that day has stuck with me and many others to this day.
He accepted a plaque honoring the 25th anniversary of his debut, but also commented, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Nine days later, Robinson passed away at the age of 53. Two years later, fellow Hall of Famer Frank Robinson would be hired by the Cleveland Indians as their manager for the 1975 season.
Frank Robinson would go on to manage three other clubs — ironically one of those other clubs would eventually become the Washington Nationals — which brings us to the crux of this piece.
We’ve seen a sprinkling of black managers in the majors over the years. From Ron Washington to Maury Wills, Willie Randolph to Lloyd McClendon, Cito Gaston to Larry Doby, and beyond.
But finally, we get a different twist. When the Nationals host the Dodgers Friday afternoon in Game One of the National League Division Series (5:30 ET), two black managers will battle each other for the first time in the postseason.
When yours truly wrote the aforementioned “Dave & Dusty” piece back during spring training, I felt like both managers had more than a good chance of getting into the postseason.
However, knowing all the ups and downs, and twists and turns that a 162-game season can do, nothing is guaranteed. While the main goals for both Baker and Roberts were clear, their paths were completely different.
Despite over 1,700 career wins and entering his eighth postseason appearance in 21 years as a skipper, there are still many critics of Dusty Baker and his managerial resume.
They point to the Giants’ Game Six collapse in the 2002 World Series. They’ll tell you he shouldn’t have removed Russ Ortiz when he was pitching the game of his life against the Angels.
They’ll tell you he ruined the young arms of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior when he took over the Cubs. The sabermetric community will tell you he’s an old relic that refuses to “get with the times”.
After losing his job in Cincinnati in 2013 — following another trip to the postseason — Baker was out of the game for two years. He applied for some managerial jobs, but the phone calls never came back.
When he was hired by the Nationals during the offseason, those murmurs and whispers came up again. “He wasn’t their first choice,” they said.
In many folks eyes, Baker had much to prove entering the 2016 season. But if those same critics were being truthful, the team he took over had just as much to prove as well.
Winners of the NL East two of the previous four seasons, the Nats were expected to take the division again in 2015. But they lost their edge along the way.
They never hit their stride and not only didn’t win the division, they collapsed on and off the field for the all the world to see.
Exit Matt Williams. Enter Dusty Baker.
95 wins later, Baker and the Nats have another division crown under their belts. At the end of the day, Dusty fit the Beltway like a glove.
Other than a one-game interim tag with the San Diego Padres in 2015, Dave Roberts became the new skipper of the L.A. Dodgers with very little managerial experience.
Similar to Baker, he was taking over a team that was looked upon as underachievers despite some success. Winners of the NL West for the last three years hadn’t yielded even a trip to the World Series.
During that period, the Dodgers supplanted the Yankees as the team with the highest payroll in the game. When you throw in the uneasy relationship between then manager Don Mattingly and the front office, the fuse was lit in L.A.
The former Yankee All-Star was eventually let go by the Dodgers during the offseason. Enter the former L.A. outfielder whose probably more recognized for his postseason heroics with the 2004 Boston Red Sox.
Things started slowly for the first-year skipper. The Dodgers trailed San Francisco by eight games on June 26 but then surged despite losing pitcher Clayton Kershaw for two months with a back injury.
Later in the year, the on-going “controversy” with outfielder Yasiel Puig came to a head as he was sent to the minors for a month to straighten out his attitude and swing.
The Dodgers would set an MLB record in Roberts’ first year by placing 28 different players on the disabled list throughout the season. Despite the injuries, they’d eventually clinch their fourth consecutive NL West title on September 25.
Considering the wide microscope he faced all season, Roberts has passed his first test with flying colors. The next step or steps will be crucial. Despite a few hiccups, Roberts is right where he wants to be.
To say that Baker and Roberts have overcome some obstacles to get to his historic matchup would be an understatement. Ironically, it’s the Nats that enter this playoff a little more dinged up than the Dodgers.
Washington has already lost starting catcher Wilson Ramos to a season-ending knee injury, pitcher Stephen Strasburg will likely miss the series, and All-Stars Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper are nursing injuries as well.
As for L.A., reliever Adam Liberatore will be out of the NLDS with an elbow injury. Other than that, Roberts’ M.A.S.H. unit roster will be at somewhat full strength entering Friday’s game.
The time for talking is over. It’s time to get this thing started. Hopefully, somewhere in baseball heaven, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson is looking down with a huge grin of approval on his face.
Anthony McClean can be reached via email at email@example.com.