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Tony La Russa vs. Dusty Baker: ALDS is new chapter for heated rivalry between MLB's oldest managers

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It is the dugout version of Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird.

It is cool and hip vs. stoic and curmudgeonly.

It’s one hopeful Hall of Famer vs. a Hall of Famer coming out of retirement.

It’s old vs. older.

It’s 72-year-old Dusty Baker and 77-year-old Tony La Russa, baseball’s oldest managers. They've known one another for 50 years, managed against each other for 24 years, screamed at one another for 20 years and hated each other until the recent death of a close friend.

When the Houston Astros take on the Chicago White Sox on Thursday in Game 1 of the AL Division Series at Minute Maid Park, the action may be on the field, but considering the heated history of Baker and La Russa, there will be plenty of eyes on the dugouts.

“It’s going to be awesome,’’ said former Cubs GM Ed Lynch. “You’re talking about two intense competitors who disliked one another so much that they nearly came to blows. This is old-school baseball at its finest between two of the most respected managers who ever lived.’’

Said former St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who won a World Series with La Russa: “I remember those dugout beefs they had back in the day. It was sweet. Hopefully, they get into it again."

Former Cubs first baseman Eric Karros, who played for Baker and was flipped off by La Russa, said: “I don’t think they were going to fight each other, but it sure looked like it. Who knows what will happen now? This is going to be great.’’

Decades of history

They are older now, move slower and talk calmer, but the fierce competitiveness still drives each of them, refusing to completely let go of their scars, but realizing their deep respect for one another.

“Really, when you think back, all we ever did was take care of our own teams,’’ La Russa told USA TODAY Sports from his Chicago apartment. “We had our clashes here and there, but all we were doing was taking care of our own players. We compete. We both respect the game. And we respect each other. That’s what it’s all about."

Said Baker: “We were in the same division for damn near 10 years, so we’re going to have our differences. I really try not to think about it. Nobody is right all of the time. Nobody is wrong all of the time. Let’s just play ball. At the end of the day, we’ll shake hands, tell each other good luck, and hope you’re the last one standing.’’

It was Dave Stewart, Baker’s former teammate with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the former four-time, 20-game winner for La Russa when he managed the Oakland A’s, who brokered the peace.

They gathered on June 14, 2014 in Phoenix for Bob Welch’s funeral services. Baker played with Welch in Los Angeles, and La Russa managed him in Oakland. When the tears dried, and stories stopped, Stewart pulled aside Baker and La Russa, and told them it was time to talk, setting up a dinner in downtown Phoenix.

“They hadn’t talked to each other in years, no conversations at all,’’ Stewart said in a phone interview this week. “That kind of stuff just sticks with you. I told Dusty, 'It takes a lot more energy in holding onto that kind of stuff that letting it go.’ Dusty said, 'I’m not holding onto anything. I’ll sit down with Tony any time.’

“So the three of us met, talked, and after that, the two of them shared a lot of text messages with one other. Two of my closest relationships in the world are with Dusty and Tony. And as friends with both, knowing their similarities, you want to see good people around good people."

Three months after the dinner, Stewart was hired by La Russa to become the Arizona Diamondbacks' general manager. He made his first move the following day, firing Kirk Gibson as manager.

Stewart immediately informed La Russa, the D-backs chief baseball officer, that he had the perfect replacement. He wanted to hire Baker.

“To me, he was the best manager available,’’ Stewart said. “The perfect guy. But it never got past Tony. We never even interviewed Dusty.’’

The Cold War, apparently, still had not quite thawed.

“I never asked Tony’s reasons,’’ Stewart said. “We wound up hiring Chip Hale, and when it was clear that wasn’t working out, I tried to get Tony to come back and manage. I think he gave it serious thought, but said he couldn’t give everything the position desired.’’

Two years later, Hale was fired. So was Stewart. And La Russa was demoted.

“I think about that sometimes,’’ Stewart said, “how fate would have been different if Dusty had been our manager. You look at Dusty, and he’s won everywhere he’s been. Tony’s already in the Hall of Fame. Dusty will be joining him one day."

'If you're going to bark ...'

These two men are powerful, intense competitors who despise losing, demand respect and are fiercely loyal.

The baseball world witnessed that during the 2002 National League Championship Series when San Francisco Giants center fielder Kenny Lofton hit a home run in the third inning of Game 1 off Matt Morris, and stood and admired it, far too long for the Cardinals’ taste. The next time Lofton came to the plate, Cardinals reliever Mike Crudale threw high and inside. The benches cleared, no fights took place, but La Russa and Baker were screaming at one another.

They each were fined $500 for inflaming the situation, with Baker saying he wasn’t going to forget about La Russa’s actions.

“When you get into a fight with someone,’’ Baker said, “do you forget the next day when you see him every day at work? No!’’

The following summer, with Baker managing in Chicago, tempers flared when Cubs starter Kerry Wood brushed back Cardinals star Albert Pujols, with La Russa ridiculing Wood. Then, came along that five-game series beginning Sept. 1 that revealed the depth of the feud between Baker and La Russa.

Cubs pitcher Matt Clement hit Cardinals starter Dan Haren in the second inning of the fourth game of the series. Haren returned the favor an inning later. La Russa and Baker stared at one another, screamed at one another, cursed one another, with Baker challenging La Russa to fight.

“If you’re going to bark,’’ Baker said, “be ready to bite.’’

The obscenity-laced tirade was caught on TV, shown over and over, much to the dismay of a certain woman in Sacramento, California, Christine Baker, Dusty’s mother.

“My Mom didn’t miss it,’’ Baker said. “She called me and said, 'Don’t you curse on TV.’ I said, 'Mom, I didn’t curse.’ She said, 'Don’t lie to me, I can read lips.' "

The Cubs went on and won four of the five games, captured their first division title since 1989, and were one game away from the World Series when Steve Bartman became a household name.

“It was the single most intense regular-season series I’ve ever been a part of,’’ said White Sox announcer Steve Stone, who was broadcasting the Cubs’ games at the time.

Baker was fired by the Cubs after the 2006 season, returned two years later to manage the Cincinnati Reds, and again the La Russa-Baker feud was on. The teams had a nasty brawl in 2010 that began with Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips and Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, with pitcher Johnny Cueto kicking catcher Jason LaRue in the face so violently that LaRue retired from baseball with concussion side effects that still linger to this day.

Even after La Russa retired following the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series championship, but returned to manage the NL All-Star team, the feud escalated. La Russa didn’t put Phillips and Cueto on the All-Star team. Baker accused him of intentionally leaving them off because of the brawl.

“The comments Dusty made clearly disappoint me,’’ La Russa said at the time, “and are attacking my integrity.’’

Now, here they are, with La Russa calling Baker the perfect hire for the Astros in the wake of their 2017 cheating scandal that cost manager A.J. Hinch his job a year ago.

He even thanked Baker for being a team leader as a player in his A’s clubhouse in 1986, his first year after being fired by the White Sox.

“I remember him being so sad when he got to Oakland,’’ Baker said this week from his Houston apartment. “He had never been fired before. I ended up learning from that because I had that same look a couple of times when I was fired, especially in Washington (after the 2017 season). That one really saddened me."

'So much alike it's crazy'

Really, as those close to Baker and La Russa attest, they are much more alike than either care to admit. Sure, you’re not going to see La Russa in the White Sox dugout with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth like Baker. And you’re not going to see Baker sitting alone in a restaurant after a game quietly reading a book like La Russa.

“They are so much alike it’s scary," Stewart said "They’re so competitive, so strategically strong. They are the old-school managers who learned some of the tricks of the analytics. They manage the game from their gut, and watch the game in the moment.

“I can’t wait to watch this series. “It’s going to be like the Lakers and Celtics back in the day.’’

This is the first season that Baker and La Russa have led their teams to division titles in the same season since 2000. It is the first time that two 70-year-olds have managed against one another in the postseason. And after 4,798 combined victories, wouldn’t you know it, they have a 104-104 record against one another.

The tie is about to be broken, with someone having bragging rights until next season when they’re scheduled to meet again .

Baker, 13 games shy of his 2,000th career victory – achieved by only 11 managers – has yet to engage in contract talks but is expected to receive a one-year contract extension for the 2022 season. La Russa has two years left on his contract with Chicago..

Their rivalry will live on, and perhaps one when both managers officially retire, they’ll catch up in the Bay Area where they each live, hang out and savor their half-century relationship.

“I think it’s great they’re facing each other after all they’ve been through,’’ said former Cubs GM Jim Hendry. “They each are so admired and well respected. A lot of people were skeptical when Tony came back at his age, and he showed he hasn’t lost a step. And Dusty was the perfect guy to right the ship after Houston’s troubles.

“To have these two old, cagey veterans going at each other, it’s just great for the game of baseball.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker's heated rivalry gets new chapter in ALDS