The Dodgers Have Chased the Ghosts AwayJay Jaffeon October 28, 2020 at 5:46 pm

The Dodgers are world champions! On Tuesday night in Game 6 of the World Series, they capitalized on a shockingly quick hook of Blake Snell, who in a must-win game for the Rays had utterly dominated them for 5.1 innings. The decisive rally started with a single by number nine hitter Austin Barnes, just the second hit surrendered by a 27-year-old lefty who had summoned the form by which he’d won the AL Cy Young award just two years ago. The turnover of the lineup was the script to which Rays manager Kevin Cash insisted upon sticking, that despite Snell striking out nine over the course of his 73 pitches while limiting the Dodgers to a paltry 78.4 mph average exit velocity on the balls with which they did make contact.

Opportunity knocked, and the Dodgers let it in, converting Cash’s ill-fated decision into a lead they would not surrender via yet another tour de force by their marquee offseason acquisition and new franchise cornerstone, Mookie Betts. The 28-year-old right fielder greeted reliever Nick Anderson with a ringing double, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on a fielder’s choice. Betts would later provide insurance with a solo homer, and Julio Urías would cap a stifling 7.1-inning, 12-strikeout effort by an oft-rickety bullpen with his second hitless, multi-inning, series-clinching outing of the fall.

The Dodgers are world champions! I was 18 years old when I could last say those words, a college freshman struggling to stay afloat in my new surroundings some 2,350 miles from home. I had briefly fallen in with a couple of beefy football players who owned a 27-inch television. Somehow, they didn’t mind the near-nightly company of an engineering nerd living and dying with the team he’d grown up rooting for, and clung to extra-tightly amid one of life’s rites of passage.

Seven years earlier, I’d seen the Dodgers chase away the ghosts by vanquishing the Yankees, whose consecutive defeats of them in the 1977 and ’78 World Series marked the birth of my baseball fandom. Watching the likes of Mike Scioscia, Kirk Gibson, Mickey Hatcher, and Orel Hershiser conquer the Goodens and the Eckersleys didn’t carry quite the same psychological weight, but it certainly helped to combat the homesickness.

Clayton Kershaw was just seven months old when Hershiser capped his magical run — a 23-8 regular season with a 2.26 ERA, a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, a 3-0, 1.05 ERA postseason punctuated by a 12th-inning save in the NLCS — with the last of those victories over the A’s. The vast majority of his current teammates, including Barnes, Betts, Urías, Cody Bellinger, Walker Buehler, and Corey Seager, weren’t even twinkles in their parents’ eyes when Hershiser and company hoisted the World Series trophy. None of that bunch, and only a few current Dodgers, were even in the majors when Kershaw began carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders as his team failed to add another championship, despite opportunity after opportunity.

“When you don’t win the last game of the season and you’re to blame for it, it’s not fun,” said Kershaw after serving up back-to-back homers against the NationalsAnthony Rendon and Juan Soto in Game 5 of the Division Series last year. The latter tied a game they would lose in 10 innings. “It’s just a terrible feeling.”

As much as anything this side of the golden voice of Vin Scully, it’s been the fate of Kershaw that has cut through the emotional distance I’ve cultivated while walking an improbable career path, from engineering student to biology/pre-med student to graphic designer to professional writer. Thirty-two years ago, there was no way I could have imagined writing about baseball for a living; there was barely even an internet, at least as we understand it now. Though I was assigned an email address when I arrived at Brown University, I never once used it, didn’t connect my computer to a modem until I’d moved from Providence, Rhode Island to New York City at age 25. With the exception of the postseason, baseball had receded into the background in the years since the Dodgers’ 1988 win, and it was the late-’90s Yankees — of all the teams! — that pulled me back in, as the first major league team whose games I could attend regularly.

When I began The Futility Infielder in 2001, I blogged frequently about both the Dodgers and the Yankees, exploring the contradictions of my dueling loyalties when I wasn’t ranting about relievers and managers and free agent busts and labor strife and Hall of Fame ballots. Even as I began writing with increasing professionalism at Baseball Prospectus and Sports Illustrated, nobody told me I had to surrender my fandom, though the need to tamp it down arose once I was admitted to the BBWAA in December 2010. There’s no cheering in the press box, and while I’ve never come close to maximizing the privilege of covering games in person, emotional detachment and a solid veneer of objectivity have become much easier to maintain in that context. Particularly so as the players for whom I rooted most fervently began to dwindle, and my own profile as a national writer, adept enough at grappling with the arcs of all 30 teams, grew to the point that somebody paid me real money to do it.

Kershaw, though… watching his regular season ups — the three Cy Youngs and MVP award, the five ERA titles, the no-hitter, the path to Cooperstown — and postseason downs has cut through all of that. I’ve wanted the Dodgers to win a World Series during his time with the team, wanted him to chase away his season-ending despair as badly as I’ve wanted anything in baseball. Not for myself, but for him, so he wouldn’t have to endure the endless questions and bad-faith hot takes about why he can’t win the big one. So his teammates and manager weren’t left wondering what they could have done differently this time around. And so my family and far-flung friends who have pulled for him so fervently and for so long didn’t have to wait ’til next year.

I did not want Kershaw to become baseball’s equivalent of Karl Malone or John Stockton. Having grown up in Salt Lake City, I rooted for the Utah Jazz as they rose from franchise-relocation ignominy into one of the sporting world’s most agonizing near-misses — to hell with you, Michael Jordan — even while the pair asserted themselves as all-time greats. Disciplined to the point of obsession, they spent decades expending every last ounce of energy and effort to shed the can’t-win label, yet still came up agonizingly short. Watching it all pay off for Kershaw as he slayed those particular demons with some dominant October showings and some all the more admirable for his survival when he wasn’t dominant… I’ll never forget that.

In the annals of baseball history, there exists a very short list of teams who within a five-year span lost back-to-back World Series, then returned to win it all. The 1921 and ’22 Yankees, the first World Series teams with Babe Ruth, lost twice to the Giants before avenging those defeats in ’23. The 1952 and ’53 Dodgers — Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe and the rest of the Boys of Summer — lost twice to the Yankees before beating them in ’55. The 1977 and ’78 Dodgers, those of the longest-running infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, lost twice to the Yankees but then finally won in ’81, fueled by the additions of Fernando Valenzuela and Pedro Guerrero. The 1991 and ’92 Braves, with young John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, lost to the Twins and the Blue Jays before adding Greg Maddux and beating the Indians in ’95. And then these Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in 2017, and then the Red Sox in ’18, before defeating the Rays.

My baseball DNA runs through that last paragraph. My paternal grandfather, Bernard Jaffe, was born in Brooklyn in 1908, and brought baseball history to life for me by regaling me with stories of watching Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit home runs. The Jaffe family of Walla Walla, Washington huddled around the radio during those 1950s World Series, and I came to understand baseball as something beyond a backyard sport with those ’70s teams; by the end of the 1978 season I could read a box score, recite a batting order from memory, and retrace the climax of the NL West race through a stack of old Salt Lake Tribunes. I didn’t see a single pitch of the 1990 World Series, but it was the riveting ’91 classic, capped by the epic duel between Smoltz and Jack Morris, that brought me back to watching postseason baseball.

The 1981 Dodgers won in a season cleaved by a seven-week players’ strike. Guaranteed a playoff berth by their standing atop the NL West when the strike hit on June 12, they did not need to muster the same urgency in the second half of the season, and so they didn’t finish with the division’s best overall record, but they did own the majors’ best run differential. They survived an unprecedented three-tiered playoff format by overcoming a two-games-to-none deficit in a best-of-five Division Series against the Astros, a two-games-to-one deficit in a best of five Championship Series against the Expos, and a two-games-to-none deficit in the World Series against the Yankees. Somewhere, some assholes may have affixed their own asterisks to that accomplishment because of the shortened season, but the fire those Dodgers walked through in that October, to claim the title that had long eluded them, made them as worthy as any other champions.

This Dodgers team only played 60 games due to the coronavirus pandemic, and in a schedule further limited by geography. Within those boundaries, they steamrolled opponents, winning at a 116-game full-season pace, and then seating all comers in playoffs that included an unprecedented fourth round as well as a relentless schedule that eliminated off days within the first three of those series. They blew away the Brewers in the Wild Card Series, routed the Padres in the Division Series, and overcame a three-games-to-one deficit against a strong Braves team in the Championship Series. Facing a tough-as-nails Rays team whose smarts helped to overcome a massive gap in payroll, they rebounded from one of the most improbable, gut-wrenching defeats in Series history to claim the championship that they might have won in 2017 or ’18 had not their opponents been illegally stealing signs. They’re just the fifth team this millennium to win the World Series after finishing the regular season with the majors’ best record, and by the look of things, they might have earned a spot in the debate alongside the mid-’70s Big Red Machine and the late-90s Yankees among the top powerhouses in recent memory. Damn straight they are worthy champions.

Due to a pandemic that has killed upwards of 225,000 in this country alone, and that has not been contained due to an utter failure of leadership at the federal level, 2020 has largely been a miserable year for most of us. The deciding game of the World Series did not escape the shadow of the virus, as Justin Turner was removed in the eighth inning due to the belated reporting of a positive COVID-19 test, yet inexplicably and indefensibly allowed to return to the field to celebrate with his teammates — often unmasked, at that. In a season that sometimes looked as though it would not and could not be played to completion, MLB’s eight-week long winning streak, without a positive test among players, came crashing to a halt just as its ultimate trophy was being hoisted. The league is hardly without culpability, having sent a very mixed message about its own protocols and punctured the bubble by admitting over 10,000 paying fans to each NLCS and World Series game at Globe Life Field. We can only hope that the Dodgers’ celebration was not also a super-spreader event.

In this grim and fraught year, however, no joy is so small that it shouldn’t be savored. Seeing Kershaw and teammates with that trophy won’t salvage 2020 by any means, but nobody should begrudge the relief and exhilaration that the Dodgers and their fans feel right now. Nobody can take this moment away.
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