HOUSTON — So, which manager has the advantage in this best-of-five playoff series between the White Sox and Astros that begins Thursday at Minute Maid Park?
Is it the old guy?
Or is it the other old guy?
Sorry, but it’s just so hard to think about the Sox’ Tony La Russa and the Astros’ Dusty Baker without also thinking about how long they’ve been at this thing. They have 58 seasons of major-league managing between them. Not to mention 149 years of living.
How unusual is it for two skippers in their 70s to run up against each other in the playoffs?
Put it this way, folks: You’re watching history unfold.
We might as well call this series “That 70s Show.” Hey, that has a clever little ring to it, don’t you agree?
What a couple of managers. What a rivalry they’ve had over the years. And what a bond they share in 2021 as, together — no matter who wins and who goes home — they strike a blow for old-schoolers everywhere.
“I enjoy managing against Tony, but, the way I look at it, he’s managing against me, too,” Baker, 72, said Wednesday, perhaps not sensing the gravity and depth of the aforementioned bond. “How come you didn’t [ask about] it that way?”
Frankly, La Russa, who turned 77 Monday, wasn’t really buying the premise, either.
“Bond?” he said. “I think [Baker] would agree that our bond is that we have two outstanding teams, and if we both had been managing teams that weren’t this outstanding, we’d be watching on TV. So I think it’s important to recognize our good fortune to be involved with these two teams.”
La Russa turned 77 Monday. Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images
That’s fine, they don’t have to play along. Besides, they’re basically friends — or at least on friendly enough terms most of the time — though they used to want to wring each other’s neck.
Who can forget the images of La Russa and Baker glowering, shouting and swearing at each other from the Cardinals’ and Cubs’ dugouts, respectively? It got a little nuts in September 2003 — Baker’s first season with the Cubs — in the fourth game of a critical five-game series at Wrigley Field. Starting pitchers Matt Clement and Dan Haren plunked each other. La Russa and Baker took turns grandstanding before the home-plate umpire. Then the war of words boiled over, with Baker, especially, giving lip-readers a white-hot string of reasons to blush.
Baker likened La Russa to a “bully” even as the Cubs were winning four of five en route to a division title.
“Nobody intimidates me but my dad and Bob Gibson and a bully I had in elementary school,” Baker told reporters. “And I grew bigger than him, so he couldn’t bully me anymore.”
It was hardly the only brouhaha between the two managers. In the 2002 National League Championship series, La Russa with the Cardinals and Baker still with the Giants, they shouted each other down for inside pitches and show-’em-up displays — you know, old-school stuff.
There was a nasty 2010 brawl between the Cardinals and Reds while Baker managed in Cincinnati, and the two men had to be physically separated by players and coaches. More finger pointing. More in-your-face profanity. More anything-but-friendly competition.
“We’ve really had a good relationship,”
La Russa said. “The only time there’s been a problem is when we’re in the same division and you play each other. He’s for his team, I’m for my team and sometimes the sparks fly.”
And sometimes a friendly rival puts a “knife in the back” of a fellow manager. That’s what La Russa claimed on national radio in 2012 that Baker had done. La Russa — a year into retirement — was managing the NL All-Star team and had left Reds Johnny Cueto and Brandon Phillips off the roster. Baker alleged a dual “snub” stemming from the fight in Cincinnati. La Russa said he felt “betrayed” by Baker’s comments.
Anyway, tensions might flare up between the Sox and Astros. And if they do, their managers probably will be right in the thick of it. Whom are we kidding? La Russa and Baker will love it.
One man, La Russa — the game’s only active Hall of Fame manager — sits second on the all-time wins list with 2,821. He’s back with the Sox, with whom he got his start 40-plus years ago, and in search of his fourth World Series title.
“To come back, it’s like ‘Fantasy Island,’ ” he said, a reference that would’ve been more culturally relevant, well, 40-plus years ago. “I would have never thought that I could get this opportunity, especially with the club being this good.”
And the other man, Baker — on the precipice of 2,000 managerial wins — is trying to do with the Astros what he hasn’t done with any team since he was an All-Star left fielder for the 1981 Dodgers: win a World Series.
“My confidence level is at full,” he said. “It’s at the top. I mean, my confidence level doesn’t come from me. It comes from above. I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I was brought here for this, and we’ve got a chance to do something great.”
Not if he doesn’t stare down his buddy (or is it bully?) La Russa, and that would be just a start.
“The way I look at it,” Baker said, “if it’s going to happen, the Lord wants me to have it. If it doesn’t, it’s still been good.
“[But] you know how I feel inside. I need it. I’ve got to have it.”
La Russa isn’t about to just give it.
Baker and La Russa were actually teammates for a very brief stretch in Atlanta in 1971. La Russa’s big-league clock as a player was winding down, even if he didn’t know it already and would spend a few more seasons beating the bushes in an attempt to make it back. Baker’s clock was just starting to tick.
“When I saw Dusty, I went, ‘Man, he’s really good and I’m really bad,’ ” La Russa said. “That’s what I remember.”
They were reunited for a bit in Oakland in 1986 after the Sox fired La Russa midseason and the A’s — who’d jettisoned Jackie Moore — snapped him up. Baker was in his last gasp as a player and would be coaching before he knew it.
Well, get a load of them now.
An old guy.
And another old guy.
That they’re still at this thing and here at the same time is pretty damn cool. No matter who wins and who goes home.