Baseball’s best rivalry hits the national spotlight on Sunday night when the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros meet in a three-game series finale at Minute Maid Park.
The Tony La Russa versus Dusty Baker remains the gold standard of managerial rivalry, a return to the days of the Billy Martin-Whitey Herzog or Tommy Lasorda-Sparky Anderson, when the battle of wits in the dugout was as intriguing as the pitching matchup.
Legend La Russa and Baker don’t like each other since La Russa’s return to the Sox dugout last year. The 2021 postseason matchup gave the two managers a chance to speak kindly to each other, and they found themselves behind the scenes in the first three games of the series praising their old foes.
Then Astros reliever Kendall Graveman drowned Jose Abreu in Game 4, and after the end of the series an angry La Russa questioned the character of the Astros.
“It’s just a lack of character that they must respond to,” he said. “If they don’t accept it, they are very dishonest.”
Baker replied that there was no bad intentions on Graveman’s part.
“I beg to be separated with Tony,” Baker said.
The Sox signed Graveman in the off-season, and the two rivals are back to being BFFs, at least for now.
As everyone knows, Baker “begged to be separated” with La Russa once or twice in the past. But at least the opposing dugout in the latest iteration of the fights hasn’t hurled abuses at each other. Who says you can’t get sweeter with age?
Baker, 72, became the 12th manager to join the 2,000-win club last month, and La Russa, 77, moved up to second on the list of all-time wins last season. So the broadcast of “Sunday Night Baseball” will undoubtedly focus on the numbers that certify both as Hall of Fame managers. La Russa, obviously, is already there, while Baker should be a shoo-in as the first Black manager to reach 2,000 wins.
But it is not the number of wins that defines these two. It is his ability to survive in an era in which managing a baseball game may be the least of his responsibilities.
It’s hard to pinpoint the toughest part of a manager’s job in 2022.
Dealing with reporters asking a lot of negative questions before and after games? With highly educated executives who throw analytical reports on their desks as if they are equals? With general managers who insist on pregaming pitching, does the first pitch run hours before it is delivered? With fans who complain on Twitter and talk on the radio that managers are out of touch?
More than anyone else in the baseball hierarchy, they’re getting it from all sides. No one praises general managers or presidents because they are heard but rarely seen.
Management is a job for a young person who has the energy, enthusiasm and ability to work closely with bosses they can’t agree on how to beat an opponent. La Russa and Baker have adopted the new norm in different ways. They still make their own decisions, make up for their mistakes, ignore outside noise and project an image of authority. They are comfortable in their own skin, having already achieved more than their peers.
But Baker looks relaxed and happy in the Astros dugout, chewing through his ubiquitous toothpick and aging gracefully in the final season of his career. La Russa often looks expensive after a loss to the White Sox. He has been more confrontational at post-game news conferences, asking reporters to ask spontaneous questions about his decision-making, and pretending to be surprised that anyone would deliberately give Tree Turner a 1-2 count. Might disagree with his decision to walk on, a move that has been banned by virtually everyone.
“Fire Tony” chants were chanted at a game at White Sox Park during the last homestand. The Sox pitchers’ 10-run knock during Friday’s 13-3 loss at Minute Maid Park didn’t exactly please the opposing La Russa faction. Delegating bench coach Miguel Cairo to conduct in-game interviews with Apple TV announcers suggested that La Russa felt it was too important for them to be upset. Baker did his in-game interview.
When the 2022 schedule was unveiled, this weekend marked the biggest series of the first half. The Sox can prove their worth against the team that knocked them out in the postseason.
Friday was a complete flop, spoiling the momentum with a sweep of the lowly Detroit Tigers. La Russa, it has been said, hate to lose. And whether he admits it or not, he probably hates losing to Baker more than most managers. Their fighting has been legendary, often involving someone being hit with a pitch or some other perceived slight. It was the hottest in 2003 and ’04 when Baker arrived in Chicago and La Russa were yet to win their first two titles in St.
Baker recalled in a Tribune interview years later, “The Cardinals then, with Tony, they never did much wrong, (but felt) most people were doing them wrong.” “know what I mean?”
Baker changed the culture of losing and clinging to La Russa and the hated Cardinals the North had been dear for a while. Then he made the unfortunate prediction in 2003 that if the Cardinals manager “thinks (the fight) is going on by now, he has a full decade to come.”
It’s been a year.
“Boy was I wrong,” he said years later with a laugh. “I said that?”
Baker’s point was that the tide had turned, and the Cubs were no longer a laughing stock.
“The Cardinals didn’t like you,” he said. “He was not used to beating the cubs. Most of the time they were used to being with the cubs. ,
Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Sox have been trying to challenge Baker’s Astros in the American League, but Houston is making its way with them in the first year and a half of the La Russa reboot. Injuries have plagued the Sox, but La Russa left spring training talking about the team’s depth, so injuries shouldn’t be a viable excuse for their sub-500 record.
This may be the last season to see La Russa and Baker face to face, so savor every moment.
Baker signed a one-year extension with the Astros after taking his team to the World Series in 2021 and losing to the Atlanta Braves. He will be a free agent again, and has given no indication that he is ready to retire. La Russa’s deal was not announced in 2020, but sources told MLB Network contributor and New York Post columnist John Heyman that La Russa was signed for $3.75 million a year through 2023.
Entering Saturday afternoon’s game, both had an all-time win percentage of .536, with La Russa leading by a mere .0007 of a percentage point.
Not that anyone is counting, of course.