Gonzales: Dusty Baker and Tony La Russa have a long history. A new chapter starts Thursday.
As the Houston Astros moved closer to a division title in September, Dusty Baker knew what was awaiting him in October.
"I knew it probably was going to be him," Baker chuckled Monday.
"Him" is Tony La Russa, Baker's former Atlanta teammate and his last manager with the Oakland Athletics.
More urgent for Baker is the business of beating the 77-year-old La Russa -- a longtime managerial rival -- and the White Sox in the American League division series starting Thursday night at Minute Maid Park.
This is the first series featuring two 70-year-old managers, and the success of their respective teams has provided optimism to the 50-and-older managerial hopefuls.
"If they let them, if they give them an opportunity," said Baker, 72, who was hired by the Astros after a two-year hiatus and only after a cheating scandal forced the firing of A.J. Hinch. "I don't buy any of this age stuff. As long as you're healthy and as long as you're still into what you're doing and can still relate to your players, your experience is invaluable.
"We've been in baseball longer than some of the people hiring in the game or been living their entire life."
Baker was delighted that Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, 37, and outfielder Michael Brantley, 34, finished 1-2 in the AL in batting average, adding that Barry Bonds, Tony Oliva, Henry Aaron, Harmon Killebrew, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Albert Pujols and Al Kaline sustained success in their mid-30s.
"It depends on how you took care of yourself, how much you love to play and how much pain that you can take after you make good money," Baker said. "It's about desire."
Baker's passion carried through 19 seasons as a player that concluded in 1986 with the Oakland A's and La Russa as a manager, only a few weeks after his firing in his first stint with the White Sox.
Baker liked playing for La Russa, whom he believed was still recovering from his dismissal.
"You could tell his heart was broken, that broken heart look you could see through guys' hearts and faces," Baker said.
However, the emotions started to change when La Russa joined the Cardinals in 1996.
"The worst thing that happened to our relationship was the fact I was in the same division as him for a number of years," said Baker, referring to the National League Central where La Russa managed the Cardinals for 16 years (1996-2011) and Baker directed the Cubs and Cincinnati Reds for 10 years in that span.
"I don't like to lose. He doesn't like to lose. There were some things he did that I didn't like, and there were some things I did that he didn't like."
The tension first surfaced during a game in 1997 while Baker was managing the San Francisco Giants. Cardinals reliever John Frascatore hit Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in consecutive at-bats in the sixth inning with the Giants leading 6-1.
"I don't forget," Baker said at the time.
La Russa admitted "if I were in Dusty's shoes, I would be upset, too," but contended the plucking weren't deliberate.
"I swear by my children (the hit by pitches) was not intentional." said La Russa, whose Cardinals rallied for a 9-8 win.
Ironically, ensuing verbal wars were ignited by others. They were fined for their actions during Game 1 of the NL Championship Series, in which Kenny Lofton of the Giants took exception to a high-and-tight pitch from Cardinals reliever Mike Crudale after a slow home run trot in his previous at-bat.
In 2003, La Russa and Baker swore at each other from their respective dugouts at Wrigley Field following an exchange of hit batsmen, and a bench-clearing incident involving the Cardinals and Reds in 2010 fueled another verbal spat between the two managers.
"You got to defend your guy, and he's got to defend his guy," Baker reflected on the arguments. "Next thing you know you got two egos, and nobody wants to get knocked out."
But before the first game of the White Sox-Astros series at Minute Maid Park in June, the two managers exchanged handshakes and smiles at home plate.
Winning the AL West brought Baker the biggest satisfaction of his five division titles with five different teams. His previous champions didn't cope with COVID protocols or losing players to the virus, nor were they relegated to the relentless heckling from fans irate at their cheating scandal during the 2017-18 seasons.
"(Minute Maid) was the only place we could get some solace and the feeling of love," said Baker, praising team leaders for keeping the team unified. "I've never seen more hatred in my life. I'm serious. Nobody ever did anything wrong in their lives? They said they're sorry and that they were wrong."
Despite winning a division title, Baker's future remains in question. He needs 13 wins to reach the 2,000 mark but isn't under contract after this season.
Achieving that mark next year with the Astros would be special since they share a spring training complex with the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla. Baker spent his first spring training in 1968 with the Atlanta Braves, and his son Darren, a second baseman, is scheduled to report for his first spring training in the Nationals organization.
In a perfect world, "he'll go to the right, and I'll go to the left," said Baker, who wasn't sure if he would consent to his son's wishes to live with him next spring if the Astros re-sign him.
Not receiving a kernel of managerial interest in 2014-15 and 2018-19 cost Baker a shot at reaching the 2,000-win mark. At the same time, he relished attending his son's graduation, his daughter's wedding and saying goodbye to his father and brother before they passed away during his breaks.
"Some things you lose, some things you gain," Baker said. "It's been a blessing to be in this situation and this job. And hopefully I made it easier for the other guys to be in this position."