Watching — or, a better term would be “trying to stomach” — the 2020 World Series, I’ve been flooded with so many negative emotions. Most of these, of course, are fueled by the underlying cause, this seemingly-never-ending pandemic. But the pandemic has done more than just upend our lives — it has completely ripped apart the most beautiful thing about Major League Baseball: tradition.
I completely understand why this season had to happen. The league already estimated it was going to lose 40% of its revenue from not being able to have fans, but it had to try and squeeze at least a few dollars out of this awful situation. And so, in a time when the narrative was spun as “at least we can provide some entertainment for America,” the reality set in: this season was going to do more harm than good to those who love it the most.
The sentiment from almost everyone I talked to about it seemed to be the same: “I’d rather have something on TV than nothing.” “I’d rather have baseball than no baseball.” And, “a season is still a season.” But for me, none of those rang true. Baseball has always stood out by being a little different, honoring the timeless, quirky traditions that make its equally-oddball hardcore fans cherish it. What makes the sport weird also makes it wonderful.
So how can a season that featured some of the most ridiculous rule-changes imaginable be seen in the same light as the years that preceded it? The season started in LATE JULY. No fans were allowed to attend (more on this later). The universal DH. A runner starting extra innings on second base. A 16-team playoff field, with the majority of games played in neutral sites no less (also more on this later). Only playing regional opponents.
As the Dodgers continue ripping the Rays’ little hearts to shreds, it’s dawning on me that this will still, in the history books, technically count as a legitimate title. The Dodgers will get championship rings, and they will likely be very “blingy,” too. After 60 games that no one had the joy of watching in person, the Dodgers disposed of a mediocre Brewers team, an injured and not-ready-for-prime-time Padres team, and a Braves team that wanted nothing more than to out-choke their Atlanta neighbors, the Falcons, before downing the little-engine-that-ultimately-couldn’t Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.
Compare that to what the Washington Nationals did just a year ago (which, by the way, feels like a decade ago). They began the year 19-31, which would have guaranteed them a losing record in a 60-game sprint. They had to make up that ground by going 74-38 the rest of the way, which only got them a one-game playoff against the Brewers. After rallying from two runs down in the 8th inning, they overcame a 2-1 series deficit to beat the mighty Dodgers, winning an epic Game 5 on the road. After wiping the floor with the Cardinals in the NLCS, the Nationals made history by becoming the first team ever to win four road World Series games, beating the Astros exclusively in Houston en route to the franchise’s first title. All told, Washington had to go 86-43 (.667 winning percentage) over 129 games to overcome their miserable start.
What the Dodgers did was win 43 out of 60 games, not once having to face the pressure from their own disappointed “fans” (I use that term loosely because if you’ve lived in LA like I have, the true blue faithful are few and far between) and big-market media that seemingly drove them to fail on the big stage time and time again. After fleecing the Red Sox in a trade to add yet another marquee, massive-contract player in Mookie Betts, the Dodgers finally had enough to win a championship.
I understand what Joe Buck, John Smoltz, and Ken Rosenthal were toeing the company line about during the Game 4 Fox telecast. Sure, the COVID protocols and playing a shortened season presented their own challenges. But this campaign played out essentially like a recreation league season, with the war of attrition being replaced by a muscle-flexing, three-month audition to play on the main stage. Yes, it’s true that baseball is a sport where anyone can have a good or bad stretch over a couple months. But it’s also true that the “any given night” moniker is taken away for the lesser teams when the big boys like the Dodgers and Yankees can utilize their extra depth and money to overwhelm the opposition.
But what really makes this all feel phony (a perfect word to use for a year ending with a Los Angeles title) is the lack of fans. Without the atmosphere that fans create, all of this feels so much less meaningful. As much as the teams love watching their teams win at home in front of its fans, road teams also can incredible satisfaction from silencing 50,000 screaming obnoxious New Yorkers or Bostonians. It adds to the fun of the sport.
And how about the postseason? Again, without fans, it’s not really the postseason. But 16 teams? What makes a baseball season special is surviving the grind. Obviously, because of the shortened season, an expanded field made some sense. But it also made for some lopsided matchups (in a best-of-three series, no less). It then made for more eeriness when the league decided to create a “bubble” by staging the games in neutral cities, because nothing screams October baseball like the Padres playing the Dodgers in Arlington in front of friends and family.
So, fine, the Dodgers are about to be World Series champions* for the first time in 32 years (31 seasons, though, if you recall 1994 being wiped out by the strike). When you ask Siri, the Wikipedia list will show that in 2020, the Dodgers won the World Series. And Dodgers players and fans alike can flaunt their 2020 world champions gear. But they’ll know. We’ll all know. And there will be no parade. Baseball should have abided by this golden rule: If you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all.
Perhaps the most glaring takeaway from baseball putting together any kind of a season amid a pandemic is that, as much as we love this game, it is still ultimately a business and every decision is driven by the almighty dollar. Even though we all know this, it’s never been shoved in our face quite like this before. That, maybe above all else, is what should make this season, and this Dodgers title*, feel cheap.