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Mudville: July 22, 2024 3:51 am PDT
Dusty & Buck

BY KEVIN KERNAN

PORT ST. LUCIE, FL – This is baseball gold.

On Tuesday I had a conversation with Dusty Baker in the Astros dugout and then a little bit later Buck Showalter in the Mets dugout at Clover Park. That’s 38 years of pro ball experience in Buck and another astounding 56 years in pro ball with Dusty.

For Buck Showalter, 22 of those years have been as a major league manager. For Dusty Baker, 26 of those years have been as a major league manager.

One fan in the first row of seats, who watched me first talking to Dusty and then going over to Buck for another long chat, observed, “You have the best job in the world.’’

Sometimes it seems that way.

That’s a lot of baseball knowledge to absorb and both men talked to me about something near and dear to their hearts, the importance of experience in the game – and that’s something that cannot be just thrown away.

Hopefully, that is beginning to change a bit in MLB and some teams are smartly opting for experience in different parts of their organizations.

In many ways, Baker and Showalter are responsible for holding the line, and with the Rangers hiring Bruce Bochy, Old Guys May Rule Again.

Baker, with his first World Series win as a manager last season, now wants to win two in a row.

“Then you may get the guy who hits 25 home runs and 21 are on balls, so what do you do there? What do you tell him? He’s a bad ball hitter. There are exceptions to everything, be open to the exception.’’

“I usually get there,’’ Baker told BallNine of the quest for success. “I just didn’t win the whole thing all the time, but I was usually pretty close all the time. I should not have been out of a job as many times as I was.’’

Ain’t that the truth.

Dusty has managed to persevere and there is a kinship with veteran baseball men trying to do the same.

“I pull for guys like Buck Showalter and Bochy and some of the veteran guys,’’ Dusty told me. “Veteran guys tend to stand up more for what they believe in than the younger managers are able to.’’

Again, ain’t that the truth.

Dusty stood up for a lot of things last season, including Jeremy Pena batting second, and it paid off in the World Series win over the Phillies. Dusty is diplomatic. That is part of his success; so when he says the veteran guys tend to stand up more for what they believe in, that’s a nice way of saying he was not afraid to fight the know-it-all analytics department at every turn.

You win some of those, you lose some of those, but you stand tall no matter what.

“They have the capability,’’ Baker said of the younger managers to fight the good fight. “They’re just a little more fearful for their job.’’

That’s reality. That’s the world we live in today.

Some experienced men are back in jobs in baseball and that’s a good thing – including the likes of ex-managers Jim Riggleman and Terry Collins being hired by the Marlins, who are going to need a lot of help in the future because of a weak offense.

The Mets’ hiring of Carlos Beltran is a smart move because Beltran has been there and done that, including the electronic sign-stealing travesty with the Astros. It cost him the Mets managerial job a few years ago, but he’s working his way back up the ladder.

When I told Baker that Riggleman is working for the Marlins, after spending last year in Independent Ball, he smiled broadly and said, “That’s great.’’

Dusty Baker

Manager Dusty Baker #12 of the Houston Astros poses for a portrait during photo days at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on February 23, 2023 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Baker then made this strong point – and every baseball executive needs to read this, because Baker has a way of putting things that get to the heart of the matter without being combative.

“I’ll put it this way,’’ Dusty said, “experience was discounted for a number of years. You can’t take away experience. How can you do that in any job, in anything?’’

Baker was not just talking about baseball, but as he so often does, he was talking about life.

“They are starting to combine experience with the new school kind of thing and to me, if you can do that, and listen to each other, it puts you way ahead of everybody else,’’ Baker explained of the secret to success. “That’s been the difficulty, listening to each other. And I feel on this side, we’ve listened to the other side more than they have listened to us. You know what I mean.’’

I know exactly what he means. That is one strong statement and one accurate statement.

It’s been pretty much a one-way street in favor of the Nerds, and that must change.

Veteran scouts and player development people have been sent away by so many organizations, and that’s a shame; but Baker is there to defend those with a lifetime of experience in a system that’s been discounting their contributions way too often.

“The scouts use their eyes and ears and some of the new guys don’t have eyes and ears to see and hear without something helping them,’’ said Baker, another truthful statement that you don’t hear in MLB too often.

“That was very diplomatic,’’ Baker went on to say, smiling at his ability to be diplomatic.

This was the kind of conversation that used to take place regularly in dugouts, the importance of having eyes and ears covering your organization and other organizations.

Yes, Dusty was diplomatic but he was making a strong point.

The Astros have hired a former scout as GM in Dana Brown. That’s a change as well.

Dana Brown

Director of Scouting Dana Brown (center) of the Washington Nationals talks with manager Manny Acta #14 (left) at the batting cage prior to the Opening Day game on April 13, 2009 against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park in Washington, DC. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)

That gets directly to Dusty’s point of combining two worlds: analytics and metrics with boots on the ground scouting.

“I can’t stress it enough where we always used some form of mathematics (in the game), always since the beginning of time,’’ Baker said.  “Whether it was lefty-righty matchups, whether it was runners in scoring position, runners inherited by certain guys, it’s always been something. It just didn’t have a name necessarily, but it was used.’’

A lot of this stuff is not new, it’s been part of the game; there just may be new names for time-tested baseball ideas. The value of experience cannot be oversold.

Now, more than ever, with so many rule changes, that experience will come into play in subtle ways. Baker knows this season the challenge for the Astros is to understand they are the hunted; so it’s important to understand don’t look too far ahead. The Astros can’t look at one opponent as their main competition. “If you do that you are looking over too many people, especially in our own division,’’ he said. “You have to get out of your division first.’’

So it’s not just about the Astros beating the Yankees again.

“I’ll worry about the Yankees when I get there,’’ he said.

Again, wise words of experience.

When I went over to the Mets dugout to speak with Showalter on the subject of experience, one of the first things he said to me was this: “We were all saying, Bruce Bochy was sitting out there for two years, are you kidding me?’’

The basis for such a comment is simple.

“That only comes from being in the other dugout managing against him,’’ Buck said of the former Giants skipper who won three World Series in San Francisco. Opposing managers know Bochy is one of the best.

Buck Showalter

New York Mets manager Buck Showalter looks on from the dugout during a spring training game against the Washington Nationals, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, on February 26, 2023. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Showalter then pointed out what it is like managing against veteran managers.

“I know Dusty sees the game and when a guy jelly-legs at first on a throw, I know he sees that, and there is a reaction. I think the common denominator is that what people miss about Dusty and Bruce and me, is that we are receptive to all this stuff. Bring it on in here. We’re not trying to get our ass kicked, we like to win. If somebody’s got something that is going to help us win, bring it in.’’

Exactly, and Buck wants new baseball to be comfortable with those veteran minds. “Hopefully,’’ he said, “we’ve become more comfortable with push-back guys.’’

Once the new lingo is explained, the reaction is pretty much the same, there is a mutual understanding because nothing is really new in baseball.

Buck has a simple rule about learning something, no matter what it is: “You have to be able to tell us what it doesn’t tell us,’’ he said. “We’re all looking at the same stuff, so what’s the separator? The key is what you choose to weigh. Your organization may weigh on-base percentage, the next organization may weigh swing percentages at strikes.”

“Then you may get the guy who hits 25 home runs and 21 are on balls, so what do you do there? What do you tell him? He’s a bad ball hitter. There are exceptions to everything, be open to the exception.’’

What a great comment: “There are exceptions to everything, be open to the exception.’’

Then there are personal issues that may affect a player, and that has to be part of the equation. It’s not just about numbers; it’s about reading the situation and reading where the player is at mentally.

“He may not be that same guy (the numbers show) because something is going on in his life,’’ is the way Showalter explained it all. “The human element has got to come into play.’’

It sure does.

“When (a front office) tilts one way, you have to be careful,’’ Showalter said.

Dusty Baker and Buck Showalter handing in lineup cards

Buck Showalter of the New York Mets and Dusty Baker Jr. #12 of the Houston Astros bring the line ups to the umpires prior to the game at Minute Maid Park on June 21, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

That’s where Beltran being hired by Billy Eppler comes into the equation for the Mets and for Showalter.

“It’s a great move,’’ Showalter told me. “I’m excited for him. That wasn’t done looking for a charm on a bracelet. ‘Hey I got my veteran guy.’ It’s got to be what he brings, Billy is going to use him. Believe me. You are not coming here to sign autographs and kiss babies.’’

“You don’t want to just be checking boxes,’’ Buck added. “What are you really getting?’’

Showalter’s greatest strength is his ability to see the reality of the situation.

“They know the question I am going to ask, I am going to ask ‘How is this going to help us win more games? Show me. How does this help us develop players better? How does this speed up the process?’’’

Most importantly, a team has to be able to scout its own organization well. That’s one of the big reasons Brian Cashman hired former Giants GM Brian Sabean.

“He can evaluate a heartbeat,’’ is the way Buck put it.

More wisdom from Showalter.

“Everybody spends so much time evaluating everybody else’s organization, you have to know your own,’’ Showalter said.

Then he went back to his Yankee days and super-scout Stick Michael.

“One of the greatest things Stick brought in, and Billy (Eppler) and I talk about it all the time,’’ Buck said, “is that if Stick made a mistake, and he didn’t do it much, this was one of his greatest traits, and it worked with (George) Steinbrenner, he would say, ‘I messed that one up. Let’s move on.’ ’’

That energizes an organization. Let’s fix the mistake, let’s get it right. Move forward.

Understanding the value of true experience in an organization, from scouts on up, is a valuable resource. Baseball must do a better job – and hopefully that is the case with managers like Dusty Baker, Buck Showalter, and Bruce Bochy in place; and hopefully more experience is added throughout organizations.

Experience wins.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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