THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
It was hard to adjust to finally having the World Series, especially as the UK broadcast was part of a subscription channel on BT Sport, but as the playoffs progressed I found myself getting drawn back into it, with two exciting league-championship series and the 116th World Series, still magical even in the quiet of a new Texas Rangers’ stadium standing right next to the ‘old’ Texas Rangers’ stadium built only 24 years before, and ‘filled’ with 11,000 socially-distanced fans! A World Series played in a neutral park was unique, but it is true that the 1944 Series between the St Louis Cardinals and the St Louis Browns was played in Sportsman's Park, which was both teams’ home. Not even a Subway Series! Television ratings were the lowest ever, I think a sign that baseball’s audience was never really able to catch up with the sport.
The pandemic took baseball out of its normal rhythms. The sport which rises in spring, stretches through the summer when most other games are on vacation, then holds its finale just as fall begins to give way (or at least it used to, before Bowie Kuhn and playoffs stretched the World Series from the first week of October to the last!) seemed likely not to put together a season at all in pandemic-bound 2020. I wrote here months ago about the deal the owners and players put together to stage an abbreviated season, but even then Covid-19 got in the way.
The 60-game season was bookended by Covid. Juan Soto tested positive for the virus just hours before it kicked off; Soto returned to the Nats lineup and hit .351, becoming the youngest player ever to win the National League batting title. The Dodgers Justin Turner was pulled in the middle of the final game of the World Series when it was learned he’d tested positive. Turner was out celebrating after the Dodgers won their first title since 1988 after having dominated their division for a decade. We haven’t heard anything further about whether his teammates have tested positive since; here’s hoping their celebrations aren’t muted.
The media was making much of the Dodgers’ 32-year playoff ‘drought’, which would seem harsh to Red Sox or Cub fans, or indeed the Rays, who began play in 1998 and reached only their second World Series. The Red Sox connection was sometimes overlooked: Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts was the key base-stealer who started the Sox comeback from 3-0 down to the Yankees on their way to the 2004 title, their first since 1918! And had not Corey Seager taken the World Series MVP award, it might have gone to Mookie Betts, the outfielder the Dodgers traded for from Boston, and gave a 12-year $365million contract, which in his first year he has already started to pay back.
The better story-framing was the David and Goliath battle between the Dodgers, with the second-biggest payroll in baseball ($109m in this shortened season, just behind, of course, the Yankees) against the team with the fourth-lowest in the game, at $28 million. Betts and pitcher Clayton Kershaw together were paid $26 million by the Dodgers this year. But there is another layer to this tale, because the guy who runs the Dodgers, Andrew Friedman was, from 2005 to 2014, playing the same role in Tampa. There are a couple of keys to the way the Rays were built: they have developed a good farm system, but the Dodgers already had that when Friedman took over. The Rays have been excellent at spotting undervalued arms whom they can use effectively. They’ve been willing to let them go when they become too expensive, or when they can get value in return, and part of that value is the ability to identify second-tier veterans they can use. In LA, Friedman also has the ability to keep some of his veterans (Kershaw, for example) with big money contracts, and, as in the Betts trade and sign (or the ex-Rays pitcher David Price, whom they also acquired from Boston, but who Covid-opted out of the season) them. It might be pointed out that the new Red Sox GM who made those trades, Chaim Bloom, worked under Friedman and current Rays’ GM Erik Neander in Tampa.
Meanwhile, Neander put together a contender with the same pattern. He was willing to trade top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore in a deal with the Cardinals that was seemingly for hitter Jose Martinez, but which included Randy Arozarena, who was the MVP of the American League championship and, had the Rays won the Series, likely would have been their MVP.
In the end, though, it was the baseball on the field that captivated those of us watching. The Dodgers had gone down 3-1 to Atlanta in the NLCS, before storming back to take the series 4-3 (Seager was MVP of that one too - the last guy to perform that MVP double was Orel Hershiser, yes, for the Dodgers in 1988!). The Rays jumped off to a 3-0 lead over the Houston Astros, baseball’s villains since their sign-stealing scandal tarnished the exceptional run of success they’ve put together. The Astros won three in a row but fell down in their attempt to match those 2004 Red Sox, Arozarena hit his seventh post-season home run in that game 7, becoming the first rookie to be named MVP of a league championship series. His bat helped the Rays overcome the fact that, as a team, they went into the World Series batting a collective .209, just above the so-called Mendoza Line.
Arozarena was the unlikely star of the most entertaining game of the Series, Game 4. The Rays were down 2-1, and down 7-6 in the ninth inning of a game whose lead had changed hands three times already, and Arozarena had hit his ninth post-season home run, a record (he hit only seven in 23 games during the regular season). With one out Kevin Kiermaier hit a single off a pitch that literally smashed his bat. With two outs, Dodgers' closer Kenley Jensen walked Arozarena, throwing a couple of pitches so close you couldn’t believe the rookie laid off them. That brought up Brett Phillips, literally the last man on the Rays’ bench, who hadn’t batted in three weeks. Down 1-2 on the count, Phillips lined a single into center field. Kiermaier was on his way to tie the game, but Chris Taylor (replacing Cody Bellinger in center field, maybe they should’ve moved Mookie over?) in his hurry to hold Arozarena, played the ball off his glove. Arozarena saw this and steamed past third only to stumble and fall halfway down the line - leaving him a sitting duck for the throw from first-baseman Max Mundy, the cut-off man who handled Taylor’s off-target throw. But Dodgers’ catcher Will Smith, like Taylor in a hurry to make the play, took his eye off the ball and failed to bring it around with him as he swept the glove across his body for the tag. Jensen, upset with the hit he’d surrendered, had failed to back up the plate, and the ball rolled away as Arozarena went from sitting duck and goat to hero scoring the winning run.
A win in game five of the Series brought redemption for Kershaw, for more than a decade one of baseball’s best pitchers in the regular season but unable to duplicate his success in the post-season. He stood 2-1 in the post season this year, but stepped up with two wins in the World Series, striking out 14 in 11 2/3 innings, making him the all-time leader in World Series strike outs.
Which led to Game Six and a debate which will certainly go on through the off-season and maybe longer, one between the modern guys who depend on statistical analysis and the old-style baseball men who manage by their guts. After Arozarena had homered in the first inning of the game, the Dodgers went to their bullpen in the second, and kept Tampa off the board. But Rays’ ace Blake Snell shut LA down through five innings, and got the first out in the sixth. To that point he had allowed just one hit and struck out nine. Then he gave up a single to Austin Barnes, and manager Dave Cash decided to pull him. He had thrown only 73 pitches, but analytics told Cash that Snell was vulnerable the third time through the lineup, and more batters had been making contact on his second time through.
With Betts, Seager and Turner coming up, the move was crucial, and the problem may have been that there was no lefty he trusted (relievers have to face three batters in today’s MLB - Betts bats right but has worse stats against lefties; Seager is a lefty) so he called on his most versatile reliever, Nick Anderson, who gave up a double to Betts, threw a wild pitch, and allowed an infield out from Seager than scored Betts, giving the Dodgers a 2-1 lead they never lost.
If you’ve seen Moneyball, you may understand the nature of the arguments that followed, but the reality was that the deeper Dodger bullpen simply shut down the weaker hitting Tampa team. Nevertheless this one will run and run, providing endless fuel for the hot stove league, which was what we called sports talk before the days of sports talk radio and the internet. It’s part of the reason baseball remains America’s National Pastime, if not our national sport. Baseball probably remains emblematic of the way we’d like to see ourselves, if not the way we really are.