THE PATH TO SOXCESS: Dusty Baker & Tony La Russa meet again

White Sox

HOUSTON, TEXAS – JUNE 17: Umpire Mark Wegner #14 goes over the ground rules with Tony La Russa #22 of the Chicago White Sox and Dusty Baker Jr. #12 of the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on June 17, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

HOUSTON – If you told someone at the start of 2020 that these would be the managers opposing each other in one of the two American League Division Series, you would have been pretty surprised.

Dusty Baker had been out of the dugout since he was fired by the Nationals following the 2017 season. Tony La Russa retired from managing after his Cardinals’ team won the World Series in 2011.

But in January of 2020, Baker was named the manager of the Astros after AJ Hinch was fired in the wake of the Houston cheating scandal. After Rick Renteria was terminated by the White Sox after the season that October, La Russa surprisingly came out of retirement to manage the team after a decade out of the dugout.

Now success has brought these two managers together for a historic match-up: The first two managers over the age of 70 to face each other in a playoff series. Baker turned 72 in June while La Russa just turned 77 on Monday.

“I think he 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,” said La Russa on Tuesday. “It’s important to recognize our good fortune to be involved with these two teams.”

La Russa indeed inherited a talented young core with a few veterans sprinkled in, then navigated the club through a number of injuries to help the White Sox to 93 wins and their first American League Central Division championship since 2008.

Baker took the Astros to the ALCS in the shortened 2020 season then helped Houston capture the AL West with a 95-win campaign. His team still features a number of players from the team’s 2017 World Series championship, which came under heavy scrutiny after a sign-stealing scheme was revealed in late 2019 and early 2020.

The teams faced off seven times this season, with the Astros sweeping the White Sox in Houston in June then the south siders taking 2-of-3 in Chicago in July after the All-Star Break.

But that’s only another chapter in what’s been a story of a pair of successful managers who’ve faced off a number of times in the past. They were teammates with the Braves briefly in 1971 and then La Russa managed Baker with the Athletics in 1986.

Later on, they squared off a number of times in the National League when La Russa was manager of the Cardinals from 1996-2011 while Baker had stops in San Francisco, Chicago, and Cincinnati. There were a few war of words between the two both at each other and in the press during that time.

That included a memorable argument between the two at Wrigley Field on September 3, 2003 in a tense five-game series between the Cubs & Cardinals. WGN cameras caught the pair screaming at each other after pitcher Matt Clement was hit by St. Louis’ Dan Haren with a pitch.

The Cubs would take 4-of-5 in that series and win the NL Central, but La Russa’s Cardinals would win the division the next three years before Baker was let go after the 2006 season.

Despite some dust-ups, La Russa maintains the pair are far from enemies.

“The whole time that he started to manage, we’ve really had a good relationship,” said La Russa. “The only time there’s been a problem is when we were in the same division and you play each other. He’s for his team, I’m for my team, and sometimes sparks fly. It’s all understandable because you want to take care of your team and he takes care of his.”

That respect was also shown towards La Russa on Wednesday from Baker, ahead of the start of the ALDS on Thursday.

“He’s in the Hall of Fame. You don’t find many Hall of Famers that come back. Most of them are trying to get in, more or less coming back. I enjoy managing against Tony,” said Baker.

That will be the case again in 2021 for a match-up of managers few saw coming not long ago.

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