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Old rivals La Russa, Baker meet again as Sox visit Astros

/ by Vinnie Duber
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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HOUSTON — Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker are going head-to-head again.

It remains to be seen whether they’ll once more be hurling profanities at each other from opposing dugouts. But the same two skippers who clashed in a famous five-game series between NL Central rivals in 2003 meet once again as the septuagenarian leaders of AL contenders nearly two decades later as the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros play four games this weekend in Texas.

The White Sox have made it quite clear they’re not putting any extra emphasis on mid-June matchups with teams they could see months later with far more on the line. But there will certainly be something special about seeing La Russa and Baker on opposite sides of the field once more.

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That five-game series in September 2003 was the turning point in the race for the Central crown that season, Baker’s Chicago Cubs taking four of five from La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals en route to the first division title on the North Side since 1989. The following season, it was the Cubs making a late-season collapse and La Russa making the first of three World Series trips with the Cardinals.

But the enduring visual from that series full of entertaining games was the two managers swapping heated “f--- yous!” during a bean-ball battle between that contest’s starting pitchers, Matt Clement and Dan Haren.

 

"I pitched against Dusty. And Dusty never backed down to anybody,” current White Sox broadcaster and then-Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone told NBC Sports Chicago last week. “And Tony La Russa has never backed down to anybody. So you had these two strong personalities leading iconic franchises. And that's what helped make that rivalry as intense as it really was. And it all came to a head in that series.

“That series was so tense. … I mean, every game, both teams were at each other's throats. … When that series was over, Chip (Caray) and I — I mean, I just remember this like it was yesterday — Chip and I just sat back in our chairs, and we looked at one another and just went, 'Wow, we're probably not going to see a five-game series like that ever again.' Not with what was on the line, not with the players on both of these teams going head to head, the great rivalry that is Cubs-Cardinals. Everything was right there, both teams laid it all out on the field.

“And what I said toward the end of that game was, 'The Cardinals came to town, and they thought they were better than the Cubs. And they left town knowing they weren't.' I remember saying that, and I remember that series. That series was as intense a five-game series as I've ever seen.”

The White Sox, fresh off a series victory against the Tampa Bay Rays that vaulted them to the best record in the American League, likely won’t find that intensity this weekend in Houston. At least they won't force it. As formidable an opponent as the Astros are — this could very well be an ALCS preview — the calendar is working against something as memorable as that Cubs-Cardinals set in 2003. Heck, considering what followed two years later, in 2005, there will probably never be a White Sox-Astros series that becomes anything but the second most memorable matchup between the two teams.

But undoubtedly a new chapter will be written in the La Russa-Baker story this weekend.

The circumstances of their current employments remain fascinating, La Russa back where he started his Hall-of-Fame managerial career after a decade of retirement and Baker called on to shepherd a still-contending group of Astros in the wake of a cheating scandal still very much a part of the public consciousness.

That the matchup of these two is still possible all these years after their Wrigley Field screaming match is amazing in and of itself.

“It says to both of them that they really love baseball,” Stone said. “Because Tony didn't have to come back. Tony was in the Hall of Fame already. Dusty's got a good shot at getting there.

 

“If you look at what Dusty has done just in the wins and losses, that's one thing. But then look at what Dusty has done to influence culture. Dusty is the most successful African-American manager in the history of our game.

“It's two really successful guys. And where Dusty has never won the big prize, Tony's won it three times. Where Dusty can get his team close to getting there, he never has really gotten there. Tony has gotten there. But it doesn't diminish the tremendous amount of pride these guys have.

“I like the matchup of Tony going against Dusty because the interesting part is Dusty is dying to get where Tony's been three times. And when one guy looks across the field and sees Tony La Russa, a man he's gone head-to-head with a lot and a man who knows how to get to the promised land, and Dusty needs to get there.”

After Baker, as manager of the San Francisco Giants, bested La Russa’s Cardinals in the 2002 NLCS and then beat them for the Central title with the Cubs a year later — getting five outs away from a second straight pennant before, well, you know — La Russa won three pennants and two World Series titles in St. Louis. Baker kept managing during La Russa’s retirement, helming a few contending Washington Nationals teams before they won the World Series two years after he was fired.

And so maybe, after all these years, the same dynamic will exist when the two meet this weekend.

But what would really be the ultimate ending to this story is a matchup between La Russa’s White Sox and Baker’s Astros come October. And right now, it’s extraordinarily possible, these two teams among the game’s legitimate World Series contenders.

Even if everything remains cordial this weekend in June, maybe playoff baseball could set off some of those old fireworks.

“It would be an interesting pair-up once again to have Tony La Russa going against Dusty Baker,” Stone said, “both of them a little bit older, both of them maybe a little bit wiser, but neither of them having lost one iota of their fire and desire to win.”

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