Bryce Harper was 23 years old, in his fifth season in the majors, when Dusty Baker joined the Nationals as the third manager in the 2010 No. 1 overall pick’s career. The two of them are in the World Series now, playing against one another, Harper with the Phillies, having signed a 13-year/$330M free agent deal in Philadelphia in 2019, and Baker in his third season with the Houston Astros, having joined the ‘Stros in 2020, three years after Washington decided they would move on from the manager following the 2017 campaign.
Heading into the 118th Fall Classic, Baker talked with reporters about his first impressions of Harper from back in 2016.
“Well, I mean Bryce was — he was pretty easy to manage. He was a young player,” Baker said.
“I had been told about him from Matt Williams,” who managed the club in 2014-15, before Baker took over on the bench, “... I got Matt’s graces for me to take over for his job, and I asked him about different players.
“I mean, [Harper’s] a tremendous player. He’s been in the spotlight for a long, long time. I happen to like him a lot on the field and off the field. I’m very impressed with his dedication to people and to life. He came to see me when they were here playing in that last series. I had a knock on my door and it was Bryce and we had a great conversation. He comes from a good family, his mom and dad. He’s a force to deal with.
“We had a couple run-ins, like you always do at some point in time, but he actually thanked me for those times. So, like I said, I got a lot of respect for him.”
Baker said at the time, in early ‘16, Harper was already a tremendous player, and a unique talent, even if he thought the preternaturally-gifted slugger was still coming into his own when they were together in the nation’s capital.
“I mean, it’s hard to project where he’s going, because the sky is the limit,” Baker explained.
“Where he’s been, he might have gotten there a little bit ahead of schedule. I think he was a little bit rushed, because he didn’t have much — I don’t know much about him in the past — but he couldn’t have had much minor league experience, and then when he got here, he was overmatched a little bit in the beginning, as usual, and then he figured it out and he figured it out in a hurry and he actually figured it out quicker than Barry Bonds did.
“Because you look at Barry Bonds’ track record and Barry was hitting in the .230s early in his career. So [Harper’s] figured it out pretty good. He’s a smart young man.
“And I’m just glad that I’m here to hopefully help him in a small way and to see his progress and his greatness in action.”
It’s Baker’s third career, and second consecutive, trip to the World Series as a manager, and when he took the Astros to the Series last season, Harper said he was pulling for his former skipper to finally win one as manager to go along with the one he won in his 19-year career as a player (in 1981 with the Los Angeles Dodgers).
“He’s somebody that’s always going to fight for his players,” Harper told The Athletic’s Claire Smith last fall.
“He’s going to be on the top step for his players always, and I love that about him. I do, I really do.”
And he really wanted to see Baker get that ring.
“I mean, he’s done so much for this game as a manager and as a player as well,” Harper said.
“Of course he wants that ring so bad, and I think that’s why he keeps going back to the game. Most of all, though, he just wants his teams to have success. He’s been so close so many times. He’s had an opportunity. The teams just haven’t been able to do it. We’ve all wanted it for him. He’s such a great manager, he deserves it.
As an opposing player, if we’re not there, I’ll definitely be rooting for Dusty.”
Baker’s Astros fell short in ‘21, losing to the Atlanta Braves, but he’s back there again, and he or Harper is going to come away with their first ring in their current roles when things come to an end.
The now-73-year-old manager said the chase is why he keeps going.
“That’s why I’m here,” Baker said before the series opener, when asked what it would mean to him to get that ring.
“That’s why I’m glad that [Astros’ owner] Jim Crane brought me back here, also to a place that — because most of the places I’ve been I’ve had to sort of rebuild the team, but this team was sort of built already, and I had to carry on and try to enhance what we already have here.
“I don’t know. I’m just ballplayer that’s trying to play ball and trying to win. I love to win.
“I’ve always said, if I win one, I want to win two, so you got to win one first and then we’ll work on number two at that time.”