On the shoulders of some powerful and weary men, from the bellies of a few hundred mistakes and bad breaks along the way, and for the hearts of the millions who climbed that hill north of downtown on so many nights for more than three decades, the Los Angeles Dodgers finally got it right again.
At the end of a season imposed upon, condensed and masked by the pandemic, the Dodgers on Tuesday night finished the Tampa Bay Rays at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas in six games for their first World Series title in 32 years. The Dodgers scored twice in the sixth inning after a controversial pitching change by Rays manager Kevin Cash, who opted for his bullpen over his ace, Blake Snell. Then Mookie Betts homered in the eighth inning and seven Dodgers pitchers combined to stifle the Rays for the franchise’s seventh championship.
The final score was Dodgers 3, Rays 1.
Upon the final out, when left-hander Julio Urías threw a fastball past Willy Adames, and Dodgers relievers had retired 22 of 24 Rays batters, Dodgers players and coaches swarmed the field. Catcher Austin Barnes tucked the game ball into his back pocket, raised his arms and rushed to Urías. Clayton Kershaw, who’d started and won Games 1 and 5, dashed into the celebration from the bullpen, where he’d been stationed in case of emergency.
On this night, in this October, at the end of this season, finally, there would be no emergency. Or, at least, no baseball emergency.
“Yeah, I was trying to take it all in as best as I could,” Kershaw said of his cross-field jaunt. “I was just looking around and running from the bullpen and, you know, you never really script what you’re going to do, how you are going to feel. But that was just a content feeling, like a job is done. You know, we won. We did it. We ran our race and it’s over … And then to see that group of guys and how happy everybody was. It’s only one team that gets to do it every year and it’s not an easy thing to do. So it’s just a really special thing.”
Dodgers lift trophy at end of fragile season
Confined to the barest of routines with only their closest family members for months, the Dodgers of recent October heartaches won their fourth playoff series in four weeks. So they would celebrate their freedom alongside their achievement, their dedication to the pages of a protocol manual and the game it spit out and their determination to make something of a summer that might have been dismissed as unworthy of the effort. Almost as a reminder of how fragile the season was, how fragile they all were in it, league officials pulled third baseman Justin Turner from the game after seven innings. He had tested positive for the coronavirus and was isolated for the final two innings. Against the advice of league officials, and apparently with the support of many teammates, Turner returned to the field during the waning moments of the celebration. He was included in the team photo, maskless, sitting beside the trophy and manager Dave Roberts and general manager Andrew Friedman.
“He’s part of the team,” Betts said afterward. “Forget all that. He’s part of the team. We’re not excluding him from anything.”
Such recklessness reflected the fatigue in a team that had been smarter than that for a good while.
They won 43 of 60 regular-season games and then 13 more playoff games, seven of those after falling behind the Atlanta Braves, three games to one, in the National League Championship Series. Their ferocious offense, known for its home-run power and nowhere-to-hide length, adopted the phrase, “Barrels are overrated.” It was a pithy, defiant acclamation that came with a hand gesture and intended to portray that runs and wins were available by any means possible. In that spirit, in a season that would be by necessity and design runty, so too was their championship outside the bounds of pretty or customary or bat-barrel clean.
“I think for us as players the bigger challenges were off the field,” utilityman Kiké Hernández said. “Once we got started, baseball is still baseball, even though there’s nobody in the stands or there’s only 60 games to go or the fact that if we don’t get the job done in nine innings the 10th inning starts with a man on second. Baseball is baseball. For us, off the field was a bigger challenge. The whole COVID thing affected a lot of people’s routines and stuff. For me, being from Puerto Rico, I haven’t seen my family in a really long time. There’s a lot of people in that clubhouse who can share that sentiment, who haven’t seen their families in a long time. Besides baseball I would say that the most challenging part was dealing with the daily life as is.”
Haunted by World Series defeats by the scandalous Houston Astros in 2017 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018, then stunned by the eventual champion Washington Nationals in 2019, the Dodgers in 2020 started over again. Again. They traded for outfielder Betts. They clung to Kershaw and Turner.
Like the other 29, they endured a coronavirus shutdown and a labor spat and spit tests and various levels of quarantine. Unlike the other 29, turned out, they were best at it until the final hour, so for just long enough. Shortstop Corey Seager had his best major league season and was MVP of the World Series, during which he hit .400. For the postseason, he batted .328 and hit eight home runs. Will Smith, the 25-year-old catcher, blossomed. Betts was phenomenal.
“I was traded for to help us get over the hump,” said Betts, on the 2018 Red Sox team that beat the Dodgers. “I used that as my fuel.”
While standbys Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy saw production declines, they each hit 12 home runs across those 60 games. Rookie starting pitchers Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin found their footing and ace-in-waiting Walker Buehler peaked in October. While long-time closer Kenley Jansen struggled to find the knock-down cutter of his prime, the bullpen stayed just upright enough for just long enough to survive.
Also, there came a measure of vindication for manager Dave Roberts, a target in recent Octobers for fans who could not bring themselves to tie on-field results to players they adored and did not always perform. It is the nature of the job. In Game 6, Roberts deftly maneuvered around a ratty performance from his starter, Gonsolin, who allowed a home run to the game’s second hitter, Rays phenom Randy Arozarena, who hit a record 10 home runs in the postseason.
“You know, I think for me, I try to not make things personal,” Roberts said. “I’m just really happy for the organization … There’s always going to be skeptics, but at least you know this is something that no one can take away from us.”
For a night, perhaps for an entire winter, gone would be the years of grinding frustrations over near misses. Instead, in a summer and fall where the bare minimum asked of baseball was to jerk attention away from the daily toll of real life, the Dodgers went out and won, too. They played well. They climbed that hill north of downtown, alone this year, when 31 years without a championship threatened to turn 32, and persevered through the echoes.
Thirty-two years can be a long time.
A new generation gets its championship
Thirty-two years meant 32 drafts, 32 trade deadlines and 32 free agent classes to get it right for 32 baseball seasons. Some got close. Others immediately followed their trading away Pedro Martinez or Mike Piazza. Those 32 seasons were played across four owners, one very nasty divorce and one bankruptcy filing few didn’t see coming. There were seven general managers, not including Tommy Lasorda. And nine managers, including Tommy Lasorda.
Otherwise, since the night in late October Orel Hershiser struck out Tony Phillips in front of nearly 50,000 people at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, the last of 117 pitches for Hershiser, there had, until Tuesday night, been 30 World Series championships won by 18 different franchises, none of them the Dodgers. In Los Angeles, the Lakers won six NBA titles, not including the one they’d won four months before. The Kings won two Stanley Cups. Down the road, the Angels won a World Series and the Ducks won a Cup.
And the franchise that in 1958 made Los Angeles a major-league town was finding just enough traction to be relevant most summers, drawing 3 million and at times close to 4 million, and just enough faults in itself to settle for relevant and not exceptional.
The Dodgers endured but five losing seasons since the series that would be known for Kirk Gibson and “And look who’s coming up …” In short time, however, the steadiness of the O’Malley mom-and-pop generations would be replaced by a corporate coolness that was Fox, then the shallow shiftiness of the McCourts and finally the bottomless wealth of Guggenheim. Across three decades of participation ribbons, the Dodgers fielded the stars requisite in a town with attention issues, but missed time and again in the complexities of franchise building, of team building. The stability that was 42 years of managers Walter Alston followed by Lasorda, that was 30 years of general managers Al Campanis and Fred Claire was lost. The franchise stabbed at remedies that suited the day but not the plan, assuming there was a plan beyond the day, and by then the Dodgers had lost some of their soul.
On Oct. 14, 2014, one week after the Dodgers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series and after winning the NL West for a second consecutive season, owner Mark Walter hired Andrew Friedman away from the Tampa Bay Rays to be his president of baseball operations. Over the previous decade, Friedman and a group of savvy young baseball intellects had turned the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from dreadful into a World Series contender in five years, and into a reliable winner after that.
The Dodgers won six more division titles in a row. They’d win eight playoff series in those years, then three more in the October slog that came with 2020, and once again found themselves in a World Series. So that close again to having Gibson be part of the championship story most remembered up on that hill instead of all of the story they remembered.
“It’s interesting,” Roberts said of the ghosts of championships past, in the hours before he shooed them away. “We’ve heard it a lot and we’ve seen a lot of highlights and it’s fantastic. But I think we want to make our own mark on Dodgers history. The thing about that is, Tommy, Gibby, Orel, those guys are all rooting like crazy for us in 2020. So, yeah, I think it’s fantastic. But I do think that we’re really focused on trying to make our own mark.”
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