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Column: No one could’ve guessed Tony La Russa and Dusty Baker still would be matching wits in a 2021 playoff series. But competition is infused in the managers’ blood.

Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker thought his baseball career probably had ended when he was bypassed for the Philadelphia Phillies job in 2019.

“I interviewed with Philly before this job, and (Joe) Girardi got the job,” Baker said in a recent Tribune interview. “My son (Darren), in his young wisdom, said, ‘Hey, maybe God didn’t want you to go to Philly and you’re actually in a better situation than had you gone to Philly.’ ”

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Baker eventually found himself in a perfect situation in Houston, taking over a ready-made contender in 2020 after A.J. Hinch was fired for his role in the team’s 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal. Now the Astros head into the postseason as the oddsmakers’ favorite to make it back to the World Series.

It would be Baker’s first World Series since 2002 with the San Francisco Giants, and a title would cap an illustrious career that has seen him manage five teams into the playoffs.

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But to get there, the Astros first must find a way to beat the Chicago White Sox and manager Tony La Russa, a longtime rival of Baker’s from their days going head to head in the National League Central. Whether it was La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals versus Baker’s Chicago Cubs or the Cards versus Baker’s Cincinnati Reds, the intensity from the opposing dugouts was real and lasting.

With October glory on the line, La Russa doesn’t have the time or inclination to rehash old war stories of heated battles with Baker, like the time in 2003 they were caught on WGN-TV swearing at each other from the dugouts at Wrigley Field.

La Russa repeated the same answers Tuesday that he gave before the teams met in July, saying his relationship with Baker appeared more confrontational from the outside because they managed teams in the same division.

“He’s for his team and I’m for my team, and sometimes sparks fly,” La Russa said. “It’s all understandable because you want to take care of your team, and he takes care of his.”

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Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Cubs manager Dusty Baker meet with the umpires before a 2003 game at Wrigley Field.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Cubs manager Dusty Baker meet with the umpires before a 2003 game at Wrigley Field. (BONNIE TRAFELET / CHICAGO TRIBUNE)

Sparks fly, and so does time. No one could’ve guessed a couple of years ago that the two managers would be in this position.

Baker was out of baseball in 2019 after the Washington Nationals fired him following their 2017 NL Division Series loss to the Cubs that featured one of the craziest Game 5s ever. La Russa retired from managing after 2011, then won another World Series ring in 2019 as a vice president and special assistant to Boston Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski.

But like a couple old gunslingers returning for one last shootout, the 77-year-old La Russa and the 72-year-old Baker are back in the saddle again, matching wits in a series that could be decided by whoever makes the best bullpen decisions.

Neither one had anything to prove. La Russa is already in the Hall of Fame, and Baker likely will join him someday. But the desire to compete was infused in their blood, and they couldn’t let go of the game.

“What we talked about over the years, particularly the last few years, was how he missed the competition,” White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said of La Russa after the division-clinching win. “It killed him to be sitting in the stands or sitting in a suite watching the game.”

Baker was more accustomed to having intervals out of baseball after the Cubs, Reds and Nationals let him go and he refused to retire.

“Three different times I went two years without a job offer,” he said. “But if I had been working, who knows? It gave me time to get my health together, and during those times when I look back, my dad died in one of those (breaks). In another, my daughter got married at my house underneath a tree that she always wanted to get married under.

“And my son, Darren, I got to see him play the last couple years in high school and a year in college (at California). I got to go to the Cape Cod League to watch him play and had one of my favorite vacations with him in Alaska. My son tells me that was the greatest trip he’s ever taken — fishing, seeing the midnight sun, seeing the culture. I also went to Montana, my other favorite spot, spent some time with the Cheyenne Indian tribe up there. Started a couple businesses in the meantime, got my winery, Baker Family Wines, going.

“I’m not one to just sit around. You’ve got to keep your mind active. I’ve seen a lot of people suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s (after retiring). Everyone is like, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ Everybody I know who is retired has come down with different illnesses.”

Baker looks at the world of rock ‘n’ roll, where English bands teamed up with old, Black blues singers to show their respect, and wonders why age is considered an impediment in baseball.

“People can say what they want to say, but I know a lot of entertainers and they’ve spanned the generations and decades,” he said. “We’re so much in a hurry to get rid of the older generation, but there is something we can teach them about experience and something they can teach us about the modern times.

“When I’m listening to the (Rolling) Stones and they’re playing with Muddy Waters, or Eric Clapton’s playing with B.B. King, I think, ‘Why not combine the two generations (in baseball) like entertainers do?’ They hold their (older) guys with respect. And baseball, a lot of times, it seems like they’re trying to get those guys out of there.”

La Russa and Baker are exceptions to the rule. But as wise, old caretakers of the game, they’ll no doubt be in the spotlight when the Sox and Astros begin their series Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.

“And if we both had been managing teams that weren’t this outstanding, then we’d be watching on TV,” La Russa said, adding that he and Baker are old-school practitioners of traditional scouting rather than relying solely on analytics.

“I do believe that, and I’m sure he’s heard about it as much as I have over the years, the traditional respect that scouts, player development, coaches and in-game decision making carried (with us). There are a lot of people pulling for our teams, just like they were (with) other teams that (employ the) balance that I talk about.”

Baker concurred. He believes in analytics but trusts the scouting because experience still matters.

“Nowadays they run the scouts out,” he said. “The old scouts, man, these guys have something to offer. The eye chart, man. Most people don’t know the chart. The older guys, they can tell by their eyes, no matter what the radar gun says.”

It may be the last time we see the likes of La Russa and Baker in an October matchup with the baseball world watching, so enjoy it while you can.

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The times, they are a-changing.

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