There are so many stories this October in baseball that you can lose track of them all sometimes, and the month has really only just begun. But maybe there is no better story than the Washington Nationals, who think they are due for something big at this time of year, and their 68-year old manager, Dusty Baker, who has been at the job of managing teams in the big leagues longer than the Nationals have been in existence. And who has to believe he is past due at this time of year. So this is a heartbreak team managed by someone who has known plenty since he started managing a quarter-century ago in San Francisco.
It is like this: If the Nationals think they have been knocking on the door for a while they should talk to their manager, who must be ready, at this stage in a distinguished baseball life, to kick that door in. There are other managers who have known how cruel baseball can be, even in what is always an exhilarating time of year. No one knows better than Dusty does.
Now, in the kind of irony that is only heightened by the postseason, he is not just facing one of his old teams, the Cubs, in the first round, he is facing them 11 months after they became the champions of the baseball world. And if he can get past the Cubs somehow, if he has enough arm with the firm of Scherzer & Strasburg to do that (with Max Scherzer's status still a question mark because of his recent hamstring issue), he might have to go up against the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, for whom he once played eight seasons and won the only World Series he has won in a big-league life that began nearly 50 years ago with the Braves.
So he gets the Cubs now, when they are the defending champs. If the Nats can figure out a way to get by them, and the D-backs don't upset the Dodgers -- which they sure could -- then the team with more wins than anybody this season will be standing between Baker and what might be his last chance to win the World Series as a manager.
Everybody knows how close he came when he was still managing the Giants in 2002, against the Angels. The Giants were ahead 3-2 in the Series and eight outs away from winning it all when Baker came out to get his starter, Russ Ortiz, in the seventh inning of Game 6, in what would become such a famous World Series moment. Because in that moment, Dusty didn't take the ball from Ortiz. He told him to keep it, because, why not, this was the night Dusty and Ortiz and Barry Bonds were going to win it all.
''He said, 'Great job,' and he asked if I wanted to keep the ball,'' Ortiz said after Game 6. ''I said, 'Sure, I guess.' He handed me the ball back. I think we all felt confident the way the game was going.'' The score was 5-0 for the Giants at the time. Only Dusty Baker's bullpen exploded on him in that inning and the next -- and the Angels came back to win Game 6, 6-5. Then they won Game 7.
But as cruel as that October was for Baker, somehow he was right back the next year. Just with the Cubs. Who were going to take Baker back to the World Series. Who were up three games to two on the Marlins in the National League Championship Series.
The year before, Baker had been eight outs away from winning the World Series before he made that decision with Ortiz. Now he was five outs away from going back. Mark Prior was on the mound and he was pitching a three-hit shutout and the Cubs were winning, 3-0.
Of course, this was what came to be known, amazingly unfairly, as the Steve Bartman game. Luis Castillo hit a foul ball toward the stands in left at Wrigley Field. Moises Alou, Dusty's leftfielder, went running over there, thinking he could make a play on the ball. So did Bartman. He reached for the ball as Alou did. Alou didn't make the play. The rest, for sure, is baseball history and Cubs history, because just about everything that could go wrong after that did go wrong. What had been a 3-0 lead for the Cubs before the inning began ended up an 8-3 deficit, with three of those runs coming on a bases-clearing double from a Marlin named Mike Mordecai.
The Cubs lost Game 7 the next night. The Marlins went to the World Series, and beat the Yankees in six games. The Cubs didn't go to their first World Series since 1945, and they sure didn't win their first one since 1908. Dusty wasn't the guy who ended all the waiting on the North Side of Chicago. Joe Maddon was the manager who got to do that, 13 years later. Now Maddon is trying to do it again. Dusty's Nats are trying to stop him.
"I'm always confident," Baker said in The Washington Post the other day. "The way I look at it, it's already written. All we got to do is believe it."
He is looking for one more World Series. He is looking for at least one more contract to keep managing the Nationals, after doing this kind of work in San Francisco and Chicago and Cincinnati before he got to Nationals Park. We really do know about the times the Nationals have fallen short at this time of year. A year ago, they lost Game 5 of the Division Series to the Dodgers, before it was the Dodgers who made their run against the Cubs. The Nats keep coming back. So does Dusty Baker. Who, even after that fateful decision with Ortiz in 2002, was six outs away as a manager from winning it all once. Who was five outs away from taking the Cubs to the Series once.
Before his Yankees won it all for him in 1996, Joe Torre had never made it to the World Series as a player or manager. It was different for Baker as a player, with the '81 Dodgers team that beat the Yankees in a six-game Series. But now has come a different kind of wait for him.
Here he is, knocking on the door again, with Scherzer and Strasburg, with Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy and all the rest of them; with the bullpen that his general manager, Mike Rizzo, seemed to build from scratch at the Trade Deadline. So many stories in baseball. Such a wonderful time for the sport. And here is Dusty Baker, the one who has been at this the longest, back in October, trying to see if it is his time, at long last.