Tony La Russa versus Dusty Baker is a rivalry that never grows old as the managers square off again – The Mercury News

Baseball’s best rivalry grabs the national spotlight Sunday night when the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros meet in the finale of a three-game series at Minute Maid Park.

Tony La Russa versus Dusty Baker remains the gold standard of managerial rivalries, a throwback to the days of Billy Martin-Whitey Herzog or Tommy Lasorda-Sparky Anderson, when the battle of wits in the dugouts was as intriguing as the pitching matchups.

The narrative that La Russa and Baker don’t like each other has softened since La Russa’s return to the Sox dugout last year. The 2021 postseason matchup gave both managers an opportunity to speak kindly of each other, and they outdid themselves in praising their old foes the first three games of the series.

Then Astros reliever Kendall Graveman plunked José Abreu in Game 4, and after the series-ending loss an angry La Russa questioned the Astros’ character.

“That’s just a character shortage there they should answer for,” he said. “If they don’t admit it, they’re very dishonest.”

Baker responded there was no ill intent on Graveman’s part.

“I beg to differ with Tony,” Baker said.

The Sox signed Graveman in the offseason, and the rivals are back to being BFFs, at least for now.

As everyone knows, Baker has “begged to differ” with La Russa a time or two in the past. But at least they haven’t shouted expletives at each other from opposing dugouts in the latest iteration of the feud. Who says you can’t mellow with age?

Baker, 72, became the 12th manager to join the 2,000-win club last month, and the 77-year-old La Russa ascended to second on the all-time win list last season. So the “Sunday Night Baseball” telecast no doubt will focus on the numbers that certify both as Hall of Fame managers. La Russa already is in, while Baker should be a shoe-in as the first Black manager to reach 2,000 wins.

But it’s not the number of wins that defines these two. It’s their ability to survive in an era in which managing a baseball game might be the least of their responsibilities.

It’s hard to pinpoint the most difficult part of a manager’s job in 2022.

Dealing with reporters who ask too many negative questions before and after games? With highly educated executives who throw analytical reports on their desks as though they’re equals? With general managers who insist on pregaming pitching moves hours before the first pitch is delivered? With fans who complain on Twitter and talk radio that the managers are out-of-touch?

More than anyone else in the baseball hierarchy, they’re getting it from all sides. No one boos the GMs or presidents because they’re heard but rarely seen.

Managing is a job for a young person, someone with energy, enthusiasm and the ability to work in tandem with bosses they might not agree with on how to beat an opponent. La Russa and Baker have adapted to the new norm in different ways. They still make their own decisions, wear their mistakes, ignore the outside noise and project an image of authority. They’re comfortable in their own skin, having already accomplished more than their peers.

But Baker looks relaxed and happy in the Astros dugout, chewing on his ubiquitous toothpick and aging gracefully in what could be the final season of his career. La Russa often looks spent after White Sox losses. He has been more confrontational in postgame news conferences, questioning reporters for asking innocuous questions about his decision-making and pretending to be surprised anyone could disagree with his decision to intentionally walk Trea Turner on a 1-2 count, a move panned by virtually everyone.

“Fire Tony” chants erupted at White Sox Park one game during the last homestand. The 10-run inning off Sox pitchers during Friday’s 13-3 loss at Minute Maid Park didn’t exactly appease the anti-La Russa faction. Delegating bench coach Miguel Cairo to conduct the in-game interview with Apple TV announcers suggested La Russa felt he was too important to be bothered. Baker did his in-game interview.

When the 2022 schedule was unveiled, this weekend was marked as the biggest series of the first half. The Sox could prove their worth against the team that ousted them in the postseason. They bounced back from the loss Friday with a 7-0 win Saturday, with pitcher Johnny Cueto tossing seven innings of two-hit ball.

Friday was a complete flop, spoiling the momentum from the sweep of the lowly Detroit Tigers. La Russa, it has been said, hates to lose. And whether he admits it or not, he probably hates losing to Baker more than most managers. Their battles have been legendary, often surrounding someone being hit by a pitch or some other perceived slight. it was at its most heated in 2003 and ’04 when Baker arrived in Chicago and La Russa had yet to win his first of two titles in St. Louis.

“The Cardinals back then, with Tony, they never did much wrong (but felt) most people were doing wrong to them,” Baker recalled in a Tribune interview years later. “Know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant. Baker changed the culture of losing and briefly was beloved on the North Side for sticking it to La Russa and the hated Cardinals. Then he made the unfortunate prediction in 2003 that if the Cardinals manager “thinks (the fight) has been on so far, he has a whole decade of us coming.”

It turned out to be one year.

“Boy was I wrong,” he said with a laugh years later. “I said that?”

Baker’s point was the tide had turned, and the Cubs no longer were a laughingstock.

“The Cardinals didn’t like you beating them,” he said. “They weren’t used to the Cubs beating them. Most of the time they were used to having their way with the Cubs.”

Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Sox are the ones trying to challenge Baker’s Astros in the American League, but Houston is having their way with them in the first year-and-a-half of the La Russa reboot. Injuries have depleted the Sox, but La Russa left spring training talking up the team’s depth, so injuries should not be a viable excuse for their sub-.500 record.

This could be the last season to watch La Russa and Baker go head to head, 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’ll be a free agent again and has given no indication he’s ready to retire. La Russa’s deal wasn’t announced in 2020, but sources told MLB Network contributor and New York Post columnist Jon Heyman that La Russa was signed through 2023 at $3.75 million per year.

After Saturday’s Sox win, La Russa’s winning percentage was .536 and Baker’s .535.

Not that either one is counting, of course.

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