50 years strong: TLR-Baker rivalry rekindled

October 6th, 2021

HOUSTON -- The hatchet was buried for good -- or so we thought -- in the summer of 2014 at the memorial service for former big league pitcher Bob Welch, who played for Tony La Russa with the A’s and was a long-time teammate of Dusty Baker with the Dodgers.

With the help of Dave Stewart -- the former A’s pitcher who also played for La Russa’s 1989 World Series-winning club after beginning his career as a teammate of Baker with the Dodgers -- two proud baseball men exchanged pleasantries and went on about their business and careers.

No one could have imagined seven years later that the former National League Central rival managers would meet again in the American League Division Series. The oldest managers in baseball -- La Russa is 77 and Baker is 72 -- both came out of retirement and will clash when the White Sox meet the Astros beginning Thursday at Minute Maid Park.

“Hey, I figured that was going to happen when the year started,” Baker said. “They got a good club, we’ve got a good club. I just figured some things were already written before you even get there. All you had to do was follow the script and get there.”

The complicated script of the La Russa-Baker rivalry is one even Hollywood might be too shy to write. La Russa and Baker have managed against each other 208 times; each has won 104 games. The history between them goes back 50 years, when they were briefly Braves teammates in 1971. In Baker’s final career year with the A’s in 1986, La Russa was his manager for the final 79 games.

But the rivalry was its fiercest when they both managed in the NL Central -- La Russa with the Cardinals from 1996-2011; Baker with the Cubs from 2003-06 and Reds from 2008-13.

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

Perhaps the most high-profile on-field run-in between the two came in 2003, the year Baker took over the Cubs after leading the Giants to the World Series. In a September game at Wrigley Field, they cursed at each other from across the field after warnings were issued to both dugouts following a hit by pitch.

The year before, the Giants beat La Russa’s Cardinals in the NL Championship Series, a series in which Kenny Lofton dodged a high-and-tight pitch in the fifth inning of Game 1, causing the benches to empty. Lofton had homered earlier in the game and took his time around the bases.

“You’re supposed to take care of your club, and he’s supposed to take care of his,” La Russa said in a 2020 interview with Cardinals Magazine. “There were a few instances in Chicago -- and later when he was with Cincinnati -- where it became personal. As his friend, that’s regrettable to me.”

Said Baker: “It went from great to bad, back to good. You can’t harbor things of the past. You’ve got to move forward.”

The boiling blood of younger men was nowhere in sight when Baker and La Russa exchanged lineup cards earlier this season. Baker’s Astros went 5-2 against the White Sox.

“Time heals all wounds,” Baker said. “Most of the downs were the fact that I was in the same division as Tony for 10 years. We were playing them 15, 18 times, or however many times you play them a year. That’s a lot of games for bad emotions to kick up.”

La Russa said Wednesday how much he respects Baker's career as a manager and a player. He said the bad blood was the product of being in the same division and being competitive. His opinion on Baker has softened over the years.

“He had an outstanding career as a player, championship experience, done the same as a manager,” La Russa said. “He does all the things that you look for [in a manager]. He gets guys to play. They respect him. They like him. You know what? He knows and I know, it's between our two teams. It should be an enjoyable competition as far as [the] quality of the competition.”

Baker, who’s chasing a World Series championship that La Russa has won three times as a manager, said it doesn’t matter who’s in the opposing dugout.

“It’s not about our relationship,” he said. “It’s not about anything other than White Sox vs. the Astros.”