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A Pie in the Face

In the final World Series baseball played in the (reportedly [1]) pre-Steve Cohen era of (potential) Metsian salvation, the pitcher who shouldn’t have been removed from the mound came out too soon; the player who had to be removed from the field came back against sound judgment; and the championship tournament appended to a season that seemed unlikely to be played at all ended just in time. This World Series, thus, goes down as a decent idea, an adequate reality and one more Sgt. Esterhaus-style reminder to be careful out there.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, a.k.a. the Vin Scully Avenue Blues, are the winners of the 2020 World Series, which seems about right in terms of getting baseball a champion that requires little effort to wrap one’s head around. Not that anything prior to 2020 was anything quite like 2020, yet the two World Series that followed the two previous living-memory seasons that were noticeably shorter than the norm, in 1981 and 1995, were contested and captured by teams that were chalk picks to make it that far. The Dodgers in ’81 were a perennial contender featuring some of the biggest stars of their time. The Braves in ’95 had gone to each of the three previous postseasons (when that still meant winning a division) and had stuffed a pair of pennants in their pockets. Dodgers-Yankees and Braves-Indians could be viewed as what the sport needed to remind folks estranged from the game in the wake of bitter labor-management disputes what the sport looked like when played by its contemporary flagship franchises.

After the sixty-game sortout that materialized after months of quarantine, 2020’s sixteen-team postseason could have been a crapshoot. Instead we got chalk again. We got the best records from each league. The Dodgers’ credentials were impeccable: eight straight division titles, two Series appearances, talent on top of talent cultivated by savvy management unafraid to spend a buck or zillion. What the Rays lacked in profile or perhaps profit they made up for in calculating how to fiercely compete. The Dodgers are so familiar to October by now that they’re essentially autumn’s home team. The Rays’ reputation transcends the identity of their parts, though their parts make an impression on anybody who spends a few nights [2] watching them accomplish what needs getting done.

It was a perfectly reasonable matchup for incredibly imperfect times, and the series it produced exceeded the better-than-nothingness that was this fall’s baseline mandate. The Dodgers outshone the Rays across six games, though the one game worthy of enshrinement in the all-timer’s club belonged to Tampa Bay, specifically its Daniel Murphy of the month, Randy Arozarena, and its Al Weis of the moment, Brett Phillips. Game Four was already pretty close to being one for the ages before Phillips (a .202 hitter in 153 regular-season games since 2017) batted for the first and only time in World Series competition, with two out in the bottom of the ninth after entering as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the eighth and sticking around as the right fielder in the top of the ninth. When he came to the plate, the Rays were down by a run on the scoreboard and a game in the Series. Kevin Kiermaier, who had singled, was on second. Arozarena, who had walked rather than explode for one of his ten postseason home runs, was on first.

Series dreams are made of this; who was Brett Phillips to disagree? He lined a single into center to score Kiermaier with no fuss and tie the game at seven. The Dodgers’ center fielder, Chris Taylor, mishandled the ball, though, so Arozarena, whose October it was and we were all just living in it, tore around second and was waved home from third. The relay from the outfield was cut off by Max Muncy at first. Muncy threw home. Arozarena stumbled and fell. Recovering quickly, he turned back toward third. Catcher Will Smith, however, didn’t catch what Muncy threw him. In a blink, Arozarena pivoted and turned back toward home while Smith chased what Dodger pitcher Kenley Jansen hadn’t bothered to back up. There was no play at the plate, unless you count the nine poundings Randy gave it to signify that, yes, the Rays had won the damn thing in the ninth inning, 8-7.

That’s a play you rewind repeatedly the second you’ve absorbed what just happened. That’s a play you stay up as late as you can dissecting and, once you awaken, you start looking for highlights so you can analyze it some more. That’s a play that sends you immediately to the precedent file because during the World Series you mentally gravitate to the World Serieses that have preceded it and instinctively orbit that time that was just like this time even if no time was ever like this time, not in the Brett Phillips driving in the tying run/Randy Arozarena falling down and getting up with the winning run sense nor in the World Series being played at a neutral site before a quarter-house after everybody in uniform (if not the stands) had been confined to a bubble for the duration sense.

That’s how you set a new precedent. That’s why you’re glad you stayed up to watch, no matter how frigging long these games lasted.

Game Four [3] is what MLB Network asks Bob Costas and Tom Verducci to discuss for an hour or two over Zoom. Game Six [4] was destined to serve as the rest of the story. The Dodgers had won a calmer Game Five (its chance for nonsectarian elevation into the postseason pantheon was caught at home when Manuel Margot attempted but failed to steal it) and were on the cusp of clinching Tuesday night. Nevertheless, the Rays still had Arozarena, and Arozarena belted yet another homer in the first. He handed the 1-0 lead to Blake Snell, and Snell, who won a Cy Young a mere two years ago, clutched it tightly as could be. Even accounting for the strikeout-strewn landscape of contemporary baseball, Snell was spectacular, blowing away L.A. for five-and-a-third innings, giving up only a single while fanning nine. Then Snell made the mistake of giving up a soft bases-empty, one-out single to Austin Barnes in the sixth, a mistake mostly because Snell pitches for the Rays, and the Rays get as far as they do on limited resources by figuring out with immense certainty what will and won’t work regardless of what the naked eye sees.

The naked eye saw Snell in total command. The Rays, embodied by manager Kevin Cash, saw a pitcher about to face the Dodger order for the third time, which has generally not been optimal for Snell, never mind that Snell couldn’t have been more optimal for the Rays or lethal to the Dodgers. When Cash took out a pitcher whose line was no runs, two hits, no walks, nine Ks and 73 pitches total, Fox’s microphones could pick up the high-fives in the Los Angeles dugout.

Nick Anderson, who is a very good reliever but wasn’t having a particularly good postseason, replaced Snell and, almost as quickly as Arozarena sprang to his feet on Saturday, crystallized every anti-analytic argument from Arlington to Albania. Mookie Betts doubled Barnes to third. With Corey Seager batting, Barnes scored and Betts advanced on a wild pitch. Then Betts whooshed home on Seager’s grounder to first. That — along with a Betts leadoff homer in the eighth and stellar Dodger relief all night — was the game right there. Connoisseurs of World Series pitching debates who are still picking over the passing over [5] of George Stone to start Game Six in 1973 rarely mention that while Tom Seaver on short rest surely wasn’t his sharpest, the Mets never touched Catfish Hunter. No way Cash should have hooked Snell so robotically, but no way Arozarena’s first-inning homer was sufficient support for any Cy Young winner. The final score in that Stoneless Game Six was the final score in this suddenly Snell-deprived Game Six: 3-1.

You can vaguely dislike the Dodgers on any number of levels, but you had to feel good for Clayton Kershaw finally getting fitted for a ring. You can deeply despise the Dodgers for having harbored the criminal Chase Utley, but you couldn’t in all good conscience deny 93-year-old Vin Scully the pleasure of pulling up a chair [6] for his franchise’s seventh world championship, the only one they’ve ever won without him on the active broadcast roster. And as a Mets fan, even if you sided with the Rays for having knocked off the Yankees [7], you had to wish a celebratory pie would be planted gently in the bushy face of Justin Turner [8], who shed his utilityman beginnings back east to soar to the top of the San Gabriel Mountains out west. Turner’s been gone so long that the resentful residue left behind by Guy Who Gets Better As Soon As He Leaves Us [9] should be plenty dry by now (at the end of a World Series that, incidentally, pitted two former Travis d’Arnaud employers). Yet when SNY rerairs Johan’s no-hitter, and Santana’s postgame interview with Kevin Burkhardt is interrupted by the giddy redhead with the shaving cream in a towel…well, that’s so Justin. Wherever he filled in or whether he simply sat and cheered between 2010 and 2013, as a Met he was always super useful and superbly supportive. He was the one Dodger for whom a rooting interest came naturally enough.

Then, because he must have a little Met left in him, he became a story that overwhelmed everything that came before him. Bigger than MVP Seager. Bigger than cinch Hall of Famer Kershaw. Bigger than the ability of Arozarena to jump a little lighter. Bigger than discovering Cash is so named because the Dodgers are likely to vote him a full share.

[10]

Turner in comparably giddy but exponentially more innocent times.

Justin Turner was taken out of Game Six before its conclusion without explanation. If it was the regular season, you’d guess he was traded. Because it’s 2020, it should have occurred to us that he’d tested positive for Covid-19. Yup, that was it. If it can happen to anybody, it can happen to an about-to-be world champion third baseman. What a blow to Turner; to the Dodgers; to MLB, which had just completed, via Rob Manfred’s podium bloviations, patting itself on the back for persevering through an abbreviated schedule and extended playoffs without ever shutting down altogether. It’s hard to imagine a Game Seven proceeding as planned given that nothing Covid touches proceeds as planned. The Rays’ disappointment notwithstanding, the World Series packing up its temporary tent in Texas happened right on time. The most important thing here, of course, was they got Turner’s test result, they acted accordingly, Justin was safely self-isolating, and…

Oh, there’s Justin Turner emerging from his mandatory holding room to join his teammates on the field for pictures and trophy-clutching and championship hugs because how ya gonna tell a player who’d been in the majors since 2009 to celebrate winning his first World Series all by himself? His mingling [11] among the presumably uninfected at Globe Life Field was inadvisable, but a least Justin was wearing a mask, and….nope, he took that off, too.

“I can’t believe what I just saw!” returned to a Dodgers World Series context in a flash.

On one hand, if you were in fact using that hand to cover both eyes, you couldn’t blame Justin, who’s always had an element of big kid to him, for wanting to be out there with his comrades. He’s been a Dodger since 2014, which meant he’d endured one ultimately unsuccessful October after another until now. The Dodgers as a whole hadn’t won the World Series since 1988. For those born in 1989 or later, this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

On the other hand, Covid-19 is a daily threat to everybody, whether they’ve just won the World Series or not. There’s no science publicly disseminated that indicates those who’ve just tested positive are exempt from spreading the virus because the Dodgers finally got over the hump. Justin Turner zipped from object of sympathy to object of derision (and MLB from admirable to irresponsible) in about as many seconds as it took Arozarena to switch directions twice in Game Four.

A black eye for baseball? A pie in the face at least.