The Dodgers won the World Series in the most 2020 way possible
Game 6 triggered our deepest anxieties about baseball and life right now
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With last night's 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Los Angeles Dodgers captured their first championship in 32 years, snapping an agonizing drought that began just after Kirk Gibson's legendary homer in the 1988 World Series.
That's a pretty good hook. But it's way down the list of things people are talking about from last night. That's because the game (and the celebration that followed) were not just controversial, but controversial in ways that triggered our deepest anxieties about both baseball and life itself in this awful year we're living through. It was all just a little too on the nose. Let's unpack the two biggest storylines:
1. Dodgers star Justin Turner tested positive for the coronavirus during the game, was removed and told to isolate, and then did the exact opposite.
No one watching knew what to make of it when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts took his third baseman out after the seventh inning of a one-run game. The story came out later, as explained in detail by ESPN's Jeff Passan. During the second inning, Major League Baseball got a call from the lab that handles its coronavirus tests saying that the results from Monday's off day, which reportedly arrived late, showed an inconclusive for Turner. The decision was then made to fast-track Turner's test from Tuesday. When it came up positive (baseball's first in nearly two months), MLB told the Dodgers to take Turner out of the game immediately and protocol dictated that he self-isolate.
The team obeyed the first order, but the second was completely ignored — and in brazen fashion. After L.A. got the final, title-winning out, Turner was right out there on the field celebrating. There's a picture of him hoisting the World Series trophy with a mask on, but he didn't bother wearing it for much of the on-field party. He hugged teammates. He kissed his wife. He posed, maskless, for a team photo while sitting right next to Roberts, who's a cancer survivor.
All of this was allowed, even encouraged, by the Dodgers. Turner is one of their best players and emotional leaders — a well-liked character who has also connected with fans with his stellar hitting and trademark bushy red beard. Star teammate Mookie Betts summarized the Dodgers' feelings with this quote: "He's part of the team. We're not excluding him from anything."
Depending on how generous you want to be, Turner and the Dodgers' post-game celebration was either a living, breathing (on adjacent people, unfortunately) example of coronavirus fatigue or just plain recklessness. As we slog through the eighth month of this nightmare, it seems fair to ask public figures to not brazenly flout the rules on international television.
2. The Rays took their starting pitcher out very early.
Unlike the Turner celebration, this is at least defensible. Yes, Blake Snell was dealing last night: 5⅓ innings, one run, two hits, no walks and nine strikeouts. And he'd thrown only 73 pitches, so fatigue wasn't a factor. In the old days (10 years ago), no one would even be up in the bullpen.
But this is 2020, and these are the Rays. Baseball's most analytics-savvy team didn't get to the World Series on baseball's third-lowest payroll by doing things the conventional way. And their analysis says that a pitcher's effectiveness decreases dramatically on his third time through the opponent's batting order. Better to bring in one of Tampa's endless supply of flame-throwing relievers at that point. So after Snell gave up a one-out, bases-empty single to L.A.'s No. 9 hitter in the sixth inning, Tampa manager Kevin Cash did what he's done all season long — he yanked his starter before he could face the leadoff man for the third time.
Unfortunately, a sound process doesn't always translate to sound results. Reliever Nick Anderson promptly coughed up a double to Betts, then uncorked a wild pitch that scored the tying run, then allowed an infield grounder that brought in Betts with the go-ahead run.
Second-guessing managers' decisions on whether to pull their starting pitcher is nothing new (ask Grady Little). But this one jacked up the heat on the simmering culture-war bickering between (mostly younger) stats-worshipping fans and old-school types who wish the game would go back to the way it was. On that: you can't blame the Rays for doing what it takes to win. They are baseball's guerrilla fighters. But it's reasonable to miss the days when the starting-pitcher duel in a big game provided a ready-made narrative and sometimes even the air of a heavyweight title fight. Things just seemed better — and certainly simpler — back then.
It wasn't all bad, though.
If you can get past all the things we just went over (and, yes, that's asking a lot), some good baseball stuff happened in this series. For the Dodgers, shortstop Corey Seager won the World Series MVP award after batting .400 with two homers and five RBIs in the six games. Betts added an insurance homer in the eighth, further cementing his status as one of baseball's biggest stars. The much — and probably unfairly — maligned Clayton Kershaw finally got a ring (and the monkey off his back) with a solid post-season that should silence those who called the three-time Cy Young winner a choker.
On the Tampa side, Randy Arozarena turned in an all-time-great post-season run that, unfortunately, will probably be lost to history because his team lost. His homer in the first inning was his third of the World Series and 10th in his last 18 games. He batted .377 in 20 playoff games. He won the ALCS MVP award and probably would have added the World Series MVP if the Rays won the title.
Arozarena is a great story — a 25-year-old Cuban defector who spent the first month of the season in isolation after contracting the coronavirus, and who no one thought much of until he suddenly became a star on the sport's biggest stage. So maybe there's hope for baseball. And for all of us.