In Washington, two black managers create a piece of baseball history

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When the Nats play the Dodgers on Friday, Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts will become the first black managers to oppose each other in a postseason series. Baseball has no choice but to pay attention

Late last fall, the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers had seemingly settled on two white men to manage their teams. This wasnt much a surprise. Despite league rules that demand clubs interview non-white candidates for their manager and general manager jobs, baseball teams almost never hire candidates of color. Owners and executives tend to hire people like themselves, and since most of the decision-makers are white, the people they put in charge of their teams are, too.

Washington offered their managers job to former Padres manager Bud Black, who accepted it and immediately began negotiating a contract. Los Angeles went into their search with an apparent favoritism for Gabe Kapler, who had once played for team president Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay. Each was seen as a smart choice; Black the bright tactician who had been in charge of a bad team in San Diego, and Kapler versed in the contemporary ways of baseball thinking.

But sometimes, baseball hirings dont always go the way everyone expects. Black and the Nationals couldnt agree on a deal, and the Dodgers interviewed a long list of candidates in addition to Kapler, and found they liked someone more than maybe they expected. When the Nats backed away from Black, they hired Dusty Baker. After the Dodgers ended their search, they came out with Dave Roberts. In a game where recent hiring patterns say teams are only trusting white managers to handle their players, the Nationals and Dodgers eventually picked African Americans. By seasons end, they were the only two non-white managers in the big leagues. Their teams also had two of the six-best records in baseball.

The National League Division series between the Dodgers and Nats that starts Friday night features several appealing matchups: top starters Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer, excellent rookies Corey Seager and Trea Turner and the oversized personalities of Yasiel Puig and Bryce Harper. But, more importantly, for baseball, this will be the first time two black managers have opposed each other in a postseason series. And maybe thats what the rest of the big league owners should be watching.

You know, hopefully it motivates other organizations to get some African-American managers, also to motivate other players that are playing now and former players that have managerial aspirations, Baker said on Thursday at a press conference before the series. It probably brings a lot of pride across America and not only African-American people but everybody.

Baseball teams have never been good at employing minority managers or executives. But in an era of advanced metrics, where increasingly the front offices are filled with the graduates of elite colleges who favor analytical analysis in judging players, the opportunities for non-white candidates have become smaller. The new general managers are young, white, and are often hiring baseball versions of themselves. They interview African-American and Latino coaches but rarely hire them. Last year, there was one black manager in baseball, Seattles Lloyd McClendon. He was fired after just two years and with a winning record when the Mariners new analytics-based executive team took over and replaced him with Scott Servais, a former major league catcher whose approach mirrored managements.

The implication is that African Americans and Latinos dont share the same zeal for numerical analysis as recently-retired white players. Several former managers are often whispered as examples. Frank Robinson, for instance. The Nationals first manager in Washington once glared with disgust when someone explained to him the concept of the now-ubiquitous statistic Wins Against Replacement which measures how many victories a player provides over a fictional replacement-level player. What kind of horseshit statistic is that! Robinson thundered.

And while Robinson did things that were out of the norm for a modern manager including letting his first base coach fill out the daily lineup card in exchange for a smoothie, he did have a mediocre Nats team in first place for much of his first season in Washington. He might not have liked to study on base percentages but he understood baseball players and how to relate to them. Baker, who has handled everyone from Barry Bonds to Harper, has always had the same ability to motivate.

Dusty Baker leads his team in a moment of silence for Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez last month. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Todays players and coaches all embrace some level of technology. And Roberts, who was Blacks bench coach in San Diego, is a perfect example of how ridiculous the assumption is that non-white coaches arent interested in analytics. He brilliantly manipulated match-ups, coaxing 91 wins out of a team that lost Kershaw for two months, had only one starting pitcher stay healthy the whole year and lost most of his right-handed bench players to injury. He is a favorite to win manager of the year in the National League, not only for his maneuvering around statistics but for handling daily calamity as if such thing is normal.

Baseball is a diverse game. In nearly every clubhouse, three languages are spoken. When owners and general managers hire men who look and think like themselves, they put their teams in the hands of men who might not relate to the life experiences of their African American and Latino players. These are managers who have never endured racist taunts or spent their first year in the minor leagues alone because they knew no English. Diversity in the managers office is a good thing. More teams need to understand this.

Like Roberts, Baker had his own disasters to handle. The Nats lost their second-best pitcher Steven Strasburg in August, had off-years from Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and dealt with a three-month bullpen fiasco. Still they won 95 games. Yes, both teams have talent, both were expected to be playoff teams before the season started but they needed managers who could handle regular adversity to get them to this division series. Managing isnt just about finding favorable matchups its about leading. Too often general managers look for clones of themselves instead of true leaders. More than anything, Baker and Roberts were leaders this season.

Its important, and it doesnt go unnoticed or under-appreciated, Roberts said Thursday, about him and Baker being the first black managers to face each other in a series.

The games only two African American managers are seven wins away from the World Series. The rest of baseball has no choice but to pay attention.

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