Ex-Reds manager Dusty Baker has Nats in first place

Johnnie B. Baker, Jr. — a.k.a the manager known as “Dusty” — returned to the scene of some of his most thrilling highlights and bitter failures Friday.

Baker, who managed the Reds from 2008 through 2013, led his National League East Division-leading Washington Nationals into Great American Ball Park for the opener of a three-game series against the Cincinnati Reds, the team he managed for six seasons.

The Nationals actually arrived in Cincinnati after wrapping up a three-game series in Philadelphia, which they swept to extend their winning streak to four. The bus ride into town from Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport took some adjustment for Baker, who is in his 21st season as a major-league manager with his fourth ballclub.

“When I was here, we would be coming home from a road trip, and I’d be going back to my place,” said Baker, who turns 67 on June 15. “It helped that I was here helping the (downtown Cincinnati) National Underground Railroad Freedom Center do something in November.

“A lot of people here were good to me.”

Baker spent part of his day off Thursday visiting his favorite Cincinnati barber shop, where guys were “talking stuff” to him.

“A lot of them were saying, ‘We miss you,’ ” he said, adding with a smile, “I started thinking about way back, a long time ago, an old girlfriend told me she missed me after she broke up with me, and (said), ‘Maybe you weren’t so bad after all.’ ”

Baker went 509-463 with the Reds over his six seasons, which is tied for the third-longest tenure by a Cincinnati manager, behind only the nine years logged by Sparky Anderson and Bill McKechnie. Baker’s record included three 90-win seasons, two National League Central Division championships and a wild-card berth.

The Reds’ postseason record under Baker was less glowing, from being swept by the Phillies in a 2010 Division Series that opened with Cincinnati being no-hit, to winning the first two games of the 2012 Division Series at San Francisco before losing all three and the series in Cincinnati, to losing the 2013 wild-card game at Pittsburgh.

That was Baker’s last game as Cincinnati’s manager. He was fired with a year left on his contract.

Baker’s fond memories include watching players such as Joey Votto — the 2010 NL Most Valuable Player — and Jay Bruce develop. Votto made it a point while the Nationals were taking batting practice to jog out of the Reds dugout, wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts and carrying a bat, and greet Baker with a hug behind the batting cage.

“I’m anxious to see some of the guys on the field, though (the Reds) aren’t taking batting practice, so that might have to wait until (Saturday),” he said. “I helped raise some of those guys. I hear from Brandon Phillips. Jay Bruce sent me photos of his new baby. A lot of times, coaches spend more time with players than their parents. You live and die and cry and laugh with a bunch of guys for a long period of time, you form close bonds that last forever. We had some very pleasant times here.”

Baker also is chagrined to see how far the Reds have fallen while they rebuild. They were 19-35 and in last place in the NL Central going into Friday’s game.

“You hate to break it up so thoroughly,” he said. “We were close. We were real close, but I like where I am. I like Washington, D.C.”