Throughout the summer, each completed game signified hope that pandemic baseball could succeed, and each COVID-19 positive, seven-inning doubleheader and protocol breach reflected institutional recklessness. At a safe distance from the clamor, the referendum on the 2020 Major League Baseball season was not whether it was a success or an abomination — but how much the season only intensified existential collisions that continue to feel inevitable.
On the field, we certainly will remember the action; the Los Angeles Dodgers — always dominant yet curiously, at the worst possible moments, just human enough to lose — were finally champions of a season that began bitterly in the wake of the Houston Astros cheating scandal and with commissioner Rob Manfred calling the World Series trophy just “a piece of metal.” The season was halted in March as the world stopped because of COVID-19, then resumed uneasily as death tolls continued to rise. The postseason started with an unprecedented 16 teams. Before it ended with fireworks across the city of Los Angeles — in case anyone had gotten too comfortable with sports restarting as worldwide death counts rose — baseball saw a final, positive COVID-19 test in a World Series game, the Dodgers six outs from the finish line.
While the validity of the Dodgers’ first championship since 1988 — won with scattered fans at a neutral site after a 60-game regular season plus 18 playoff games — might remain in question by some of us in the short term, the long game of history is cold and nonpartisan. The final out was recorded, Julio Urias caught Willy Adames looking, and there was one team left. They are your winners.
As the Dodgers took a championship team photo that included third baseman Justin Turner — the coronavirus coursing through his body as he smiled maskless next to manager Dave Roberts — the miles traveled during the tumultuous calendar felt muted, as they do after a journey. But it is worth noting that the 2020 season ended as it began, with a question for the people who run this sport: What do you want your game to be? The question hovered over the season before the pandemic shut down the game, remained throughout this unique year and will continue to be asked heading into 2021.
The last time the Tampa Bay Rays reached the World Series, Congress and then-President George W. Bush had just bailed out Wall Street at taxpayer expense after the 2008 financial collapse. They restored big business to an even more lucrative state and in return punished virtually nobody. One top banker, Kareem Serageldin, eventually went to prison. None of the rest of the Wall Street executives who defrauded America served jail time. There were no career foreclosures on the individuals who perpetrated the deception. No indictments. Nobody was canceled.
Eight years later, before taking the oath of office, Donald Trump settled with the plaintiffs in the Trump University case for $25 million. A class-action lawsuit regarding an incoming president defrauding students of hundreds of thousands of dollars normally would qualify as big news, but The New York Times dwarfed its own reporting, prioritizing a minor war of words between Trump and the cast of “Hamilton,” when a member of the Broadway smash admonished Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who had attended the show that night.
Stunning, high-profile deceptions free of real consequence for powerful entities are now commonplace. Nobody seems to care. The people who do are positioned as naive to The Way Things Are. The expectation that no one will be punished is the only thing less surprising than the cheating itself. It is, for a cynical public, yawning material. Yet at the beginning of spring training there was plenty of time devoted nationwide to the Houston Astros, the unwillingness on the part of Manfred to strongly punish the actors involved and, as the season progressed, the unwillingness privately on the part of the baseball industry — the commissioner’s office and the front offices of the 29 other teams — to treat the Astros’ scheme as a cultural red flag. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran and Astros manager AJ Hinch, all with Houston during the championship/scandal year, lost their jobs. Manfred suspended Hinch and Cora for a year, which turned out to be less than half a year. The Astros fired GM Jeff Luhnow. Like Enron, the original sponsor of their home ballpark, the McKinsey-powered Astros positioned themselves as the smartest guys in the room, cheated their public and then crashed to earth.
When spring training began, pitchers around the league employed their own versions of frontier justice by hitting Astros batters. Hinch and Cora were sent away, but by midsummer, it was clear their punishments were not death sentences as much they were timeouts. Long before the season ended, Hinch was in play for vacant managerial jobs in Detroit and with the Chicago White Sox, and he landed with the Tigers. Cora returned to his old job in Boston. While Beltran’s future remains unclear, only Luhnow appears to have been firmly exiled from the sport. In early November, he sued the Astros for breach of contract, seeking more than $22 million in compensation.
The 2020 spring brought back images of the steroid era and its preening self-righteousness and selective justice, when the home team’s cheating was mitigated, the visitors deserved banishment, the 2007 Mitchell report — headed by the hardly impartial former Secretary of State George Mitchell, who happened to be a minority partner with the Red Sox — admonished them, then absolved them all. Then-commissioner Bud Selig was easily elected to the Hall of Fame. The Astros cheated the game and themselves, certainly, bringing into question the legitimacy of their most magical 2017 World Series moments, particularly the wondrously clutch game-tying home run by Marwin Gonzalez in Game 2, the uncanny demolition of Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 and George Springer‘s Series MVP performance. Though the MLB investigation did not indict the 2019 season, and Houston lost the World Series last year by losing all four of its home games to the Washington Nationals, Jose Altuve‘s pennant-winning home run off Aroldis Chapman in the ALCS and the team’s gaudy .741 home winning percentage both carry a stench. The pungency was only strengthened when Altuve, a three-time batting champ named AL MVP in 2017, fell below the .200 mark after the first week of the season and hit .219 for the year. He received no benefits of the doubt. That’s what cheating does.
The real steroid-like damage was in the game’s unwillingness to recognize we’ve been here before and, similar to the financial crisis and Trump scandals, the long-term damage of letting things slide despite the public’s comfort with it. This was the question of the spring, of what the people who run the game are comfortable with baseball being, a new generation of owners and executives running their teams with a Wall Street attitude and the shady, book-cooking corner-cuttings that come with it. The Astros, the new darlings of the smart set, were the focus of MLB’s report, but the Red Sox and Yankees also were warned about using technology to gain an advantage in the game. Before the pandemic, numerous players and coaches had their suspicions about several other teams as well. The Astros’ cheating, the unsure response from the commissioner’s office, the appearance that Cora and Hinch got away with one by serving a suspension equating to only a half-season did not do much to satisfy baseball’s integrity quotient — if it has one. Sacrificing Jeff Luhnow does not nearly answer the question.
A byproduct of the scandal was the return of Dusty Baker, cynically fired by the Nationals in 2017 after winning 95 and 97 games in 2016 and 2017, respectively, but sputtering in the playoffs. Baker’s return to the game as manager of the Astros was a welcome one. He was a rookie outfielder with Atlanta in 1968, teammates with Henry Aaron, and was in the Braves’ dugout with Satchel Paige when the latter suited up with Atlanta — at 62 years old. Baker is a living, direct descendant of the earliest days of organized Black baseball, a century’s worth, as Paige played in Andrew “Rube” Foster’s Negro National League, founded 100 years ago this year at a Kansas City YMCA. Foster shook hands with Paige, Paige with Aaron, Aaron with Baker, and Baker with the 21st century. He entered the season with 1,863 career wins, 15th in history, and his decision to use his terrific reputation to provide cover for a shamed organization contained its own degree of self-interested calculation. Dusty Baker wants the two remaining items from baseball he does not have: a World Series title as manager and 2,000 career wins. These, he believes, are his ticket to Cooperstown. To my mind, his ticket should already be punched. For all the talk of robot umpires, push-button managers and players with the personality of a scone, Baker represents the institutional memory and beating heart of the game. He is the godfather of Black baseball today, back where he belongs.
GEORGE FLOYD, OPENING DAY AND THE RIBBON
In a flash, the Astros were pushed off of the front page. They were, to be blunt, the last thing that mattered. By the second week of March, the global coronavirus pandemic had shut down the country. By the end of May, with sports strategizing some pathway to a return while briefly appearing to be more concerned with the health of its players than money, the killing of George Floyd did something no previous death during this decade of deadly police-community encounters could: It got baseball’s attention.
As industries scrambled and Americans took to the streets, it took Floyd’s death for baseball to finally conclude that the sport would not collapse if the game of Jackie Robinson, the sport that presents a citizenship award named after Roberto Clemente, showed some support for the Black communities that have reached a breaking point. Indeed, the sport might actually be credited for showing, at long last, some humanity. Baseball has treated social unrest as if it were kryptonite for the past half-century, yet it supported a call to action. General managers and managers encouraged players to express themselves about the state of the country. The Mets signed the exiled Bruce Maxwell. Reluctant Black veteran players and the refreshing newcomers, such as Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, recognized it was time, at long last, to get out of the dugout. During Opening Day ceremonies honoring Floyd and other Black victims of police violence, the Black players showed their faces. It had been a very long time.
The sport that was silently hostile during the racial tumult of the past decade, whose numbers of Black players are melting like the polar ice caps, saw an Opening Day in July that may have felt performative, with Black Lives Matter signage, patches and pregame acknowledgments. But the Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, and three other teams in solidarity with the rest of the sports world, chose to not play — walking out after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was an important and noteworthy departure from what baseball has been.
Baseball has a reputation of being anti-Black. It has a reputation for intimidating Black players to conform and retaliating against Black players who have the temerity to care about the fate of Black people in the world. It has the most conservative players and historically has required the most togetherness from Black players. The biggest jobs in the game rarely go to African American candidates. The Dodgers are the only one of its four most famous franchises — along with the Red Sox, Yankees and Cardinals — to have ever hired an African American manager. The movement toward the front-office-heavy game of hiring Ivy Leaguers has almost completely eliminated the opportunities to hire Black candidates, considering the entire Ivy League, on average, is roughly 8% Black. One franchise, the White Sox, has a Black executive at the head of baseball operations: Kenny Williams.
Yet the November awards featured African American Rookies of the Year in both leagues: Kyle Lewis of Seattle and the Brewers’ Devin Williams. For the third time in history, after Cito Gaston did it in 1992 and 1993 with the Toronto Blue Jays, a Black manager won the World Series.
As the season progressed, the signage remained, the moment waned — but baseball wrote a big check this summer, signaling that the sport of Robinson can include Black people in its future instead of just celebrating its dead pioneers. If the movement was only a moment for baseball, and if the game reclaims its hostility, and if the players return to their habitual reticence now that the protests have stopped, then the summer’s effort will be remembered as simply performative, a failure. For the moment, they have an opportunity.
Another door opened when Derek Jeter, the only Black man who runs day-to-day operations at the owner/CEO level for a team, hired the first female general manager, Kim Ng. Another indictment-as-breakthrough. Ng, 52, is now GM of the Marlins, but it must be noted that after three decades as a baseball executive (White Sox, Yankees and Dodgers), she has nearly as much experience at the MLB executive level as ousted Phillies GM Matt Klentak, 40, another mediocre Ivy whiz kid who got a job because he looked the part, has years on earth.
More from Howard Bryant
On Aug. 5 — 13 days after baseball resumed play — 24 teams had reached at least 10 games. The Marlins and Phillies each had played six and the Cardinals five thanks to coronavirus outbreaks that threatened the season. That immediately raised questions about the wisdom of the entire experiment. As the NBA and NHL cruised into their restarts without major incidents, baseball decided against playing in a bubble format, to disastrous results. The game had implemented various emergency measures — a 60-game season, seven-inning doubleheaders, a designated hitter in both leagues, a regional interleague schedule and a 16-team playoff — to jump-start play and turn it into its own unique one-year stopgap tournament. But the game’s response was haphazard, with new rules seemingly each day. Some familiar faces chose to not play. The newly traded David Price opted against suiting up for the Dodgers, and before official games even began, some of the game’s biggest stars and names we would soon know well were diagnosed with COVID-19: DJ LeMahieu and Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees; Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies; Kenley Jansen and A.J. Pollock of the Dodgers; Randy Arozarena, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows of the soon-to-be pennant-winning Rays.
The restart had been negotiated and was accompanied by the usual baseball grumble; 60 games was not enough to crown a representative champion. Games without fans lacked the requisite energy. Each positive COVID test was a reminder that the game was desperate. The restart took on the cynical tone of a sport that had decided to forgo the health of its players to salvage what was left of a hemorrhaging business. One player, the Red Sox’s Eduardo Rodriguez, was gone for the year after suffering from myocarditis, a heart condition he developed after testing positive for the coronavirus.
A month into the restart, 17 teams had played at least 28 games of the scheduled 60-game season. By the end, the Cardinals were a playoff team having played 22 scheduled seven-inning games out of 58 total. Soon the baseball began to feel something like baseball. To my thought, the proper measure was not to compare the quality and atmosphere of the game to, say, the 1993 Giants-Braves pennant race but to the apocalyptic mood earlier in the year, in March and April, when it seemed both plausible and appropriate to not play sports at all.
The reigning champion Nationals, 19-31 after 50 games in 2019, were 19-31 at the 50-game mark this season, and there would be no miracle to save them. Washington lost the first game of the restart and at no point in 2020 would have more wins than losses. The Nationals never got right, and without time to recover suffered an unfitting title defense.
Many people in clubhouses, press boxes, front offices and those in front of televisions across the country expected a postseason disaster, for the sport had used pandemic baseball as a test balloon to remake the game. The regional schedules, the negotiated National League designated hitter, the seven-inning doubleheaders, the expanded playoffs and the neutral-site postseason series have been discussed at one time or another as baseball’s next big change. The only innovation the game did not attempt during this abridged experiment was robot umpires. Sixteen teams were too many, of course, but the best-of-three playoff in lieu of the NCAA basketball tournament one-game knockout round was Manfred’s biggest victory of the year. After 60 games or 162, a playoff team in baseball deserves a series. After eight seasons of gimmicky single-elimination October baseball, the sprint to the World Series finally began appropriately.
As it turned out, the playoffs were delightful. The Astros and Brewers both reached the postseason with losing 29-31 records, the first time in history an under-.500 team played for the hardware. With the exception of the Astros, who fit the description in won-loss record but by season’s end were characteristically dangerous, the mediocre were quickly vanquished. The winners went 21-2 in the opening round, with only the 30-28 Cardinals taking a game from the superior San Diego Padres. The other team that snagged a game, the Chicago White Sox, had finished only a game worse than its conquerors, the autumn-challenged Oakland A’s. The A’s hadn’t advanced in the playoffs since 2006, which was the last time they had won a playoff round since sweeping Boston in 1990.
There were glimpses of the future. The Braves swept the Reds, who didn’t score a run in the two games even though the first game went 13 innings. Atlanta and the White Sox both showed themselves to be teams to watch, and even though it was never quite clear whether the White Sox and their bubbling young talent would have had the stamina to survive 162, the organization clearly felt it was ready to win now. After losing to the A’s, Chicago parted ways with its manager, Rick Renteria, and hired 76-year-old Tony La Russa, whose first full season as a manager was in 1980 with the White Sox. That season, 54-year-old Minnie Minoso (who made his big league debut in 1951) was on the roster. He went hitless in two at-bats.
There were, it seemed, goodbyes. The Chicago Cubs were swept quickly by the surprising Marlins, signaling the continued erosion of the 2016 championship core. Joe Maddon, the manager, is already managing the Angels. After the Series, longtime ace Jon Lester became a free agent. Not long after, Theo Epstein, killer of the Bambino and Billy Goat curses, quit too. World Series hero Kyle Schwarber was let go. If the rumors are true, former NL MVP Kris Bryant is hanging on in Chicago — barely. If this was the end, the Cubs delivered on the promise, just as Epstein did twice in Boston. It will always be oddly unsatisfying that the Cubs never returned to the World Series after being crowned by a hair, and yet that does not make the mission a failure. Winning is hard.
WHY WE WATCH
The World Series was a revelation, and not because the Dodgers overcame a 3-1 NLCS deficit against just-about-ready Atlanta. And not because Tampa Bay, the best team in the American League, was pushed to seven games by Houston after racing out to a 3-0 series lead in the ALCS. Nor was it a revelation because of the wondrous breakout of Randy Arozarena, the 25-year-old Tampa Bay rookie from nowhere who has played all of 42 regular-season games in the big leagues. By the tail end of the six games, Hall of Famer John Smoltz was surprising himself by resolutely and correctly stating on national television that Arozarena deserved “the Barry Bonds treatment,” which was to say he was in such complete control of the batter’s box that the Dodgers should have given everyone on the Rays’ roster the chance to beat them — except him. Arozarena, somehow, topped Bonds’ 2002 postseason record of eight home runs, with 10. The Dodgers won their championship with a tough, modest and necessary 4-2 win from Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 followed by Mookie Betts ending the Dodgers’ season the way he began it, on the marquee, the one to watch, sailing an eighth-inning insurance homer into the empty seats for the last run of the year.
The Series could have been a revelation for all those things, but instead, it was in realizing something I have likely long known to be true but had never articulated, never felt there was a need to articulate: I do not watch baseball for wins and losses. I watch for competition.
The moment, we know now, occurred in the infamous final sixth game, with the Rays clinging to a 1-0 lead to extend their season with Blake Snell, their best pitcher, on the mound, pitching his best game. In the sixth, he threw his 73rd pitch, a one-out single to Austin Barnes, which prompted Rays manager Kevin Cash to remove Snell from the game. The next three batters Snell would have faced, the Dodgers’ best — Betts, Corey Seager and Justin Turner — were 0-for-6 with six strikeouts. As Cash approached the mound, the decision for Nick Anderson made, Snell rolled his eyes and muttered something to the tune of “You’ve got to be kidding me.” And he was gone.
What happened next, of course, was history. Anderson, gassed, gave up a double to Betts. The Dodgers took their last lead of the season, scoring twice. Betts sealed their first title in three decades with a long insurance home run in the eighth. The debate over the Rays’ methods and Snell being yanked offstage had officially commenced.
For the entirety of the postseason, Tampa Bay’s technocratic, assembly-line approach to baseball was highlighted on every broadcast, baseball’s embrace of how front offices not only evaluate talent but impress upon managers through which lens they will game-plan, of how smart everyone upstairs happens to be. “You have to have a short memory and thick skin because that’s the way they do things,” Fox’s lead mic man, Joe Buck, said of Tampa Bay’s organizational approach. The preceding and ensuing conversations about the Rays’ way centered on analytics, the quantitative analysis approach to talent acquisition and in-game planning for nearly two decades. The spring training conversation between the commissioner’s office and players’ association about what they wanted the game to be was playing out in real time, the science of probability versus the art of the fight, in the championship clenches. When Theo Epstein would resign weeks later from the Cubs, his parting message was that the game had lost its way through an overemphasis of analytics. Months earlier, before the shutdown, Sandy Alderson, one of the godfathers of analytics and the man who would take over the Mets after their sale to Steve Cohen, said the same thing. “It’s gone too far in the other direction,” Alderson told me in March. There were several acceptable scientific, data-driven explanations for Snell getting the hook. His history showed on average that he was not the same pitcher the third time through the order. The data showed that in the fifth inning, which he escaped with minimal damage, his pitches were not as precise as they were early. He had struck out nine of his first 13 batters but none of his final five. He hadn’t pitched six full innings since July — of 2019.
Watching Snell skulk back to the dugout forced me to look at him and ask questions that were not directed at him but will forever dictate how, and if, he is ever to be remembered: Where is your poetry? Where is your lyric? Baseball was hit hard this year. Joe Morgan and Claudell Washington. Jimmie Lee Solomon, once the highest-ranking African American executive in the commissioner’s office and instrumental in its inner-city baseball initiatives. Bob Watson, baseball’s first Black GM to win a World Series. Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn. Dick Allen. Tony Fernandez. The deaths of Hall of Famers Al Kaline, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson — and too many more.
One day, perhaps in a few weeks, Curt Schilling will be elected to the Hall of Fame, and his induction will have been cemented by his Octobers, in victory, defeat and no decision — moments the Tampa Bay Rays refused to grant Snell. Luis Tiant never won a World Series, but for his generation in Boston, he will always be remembered not for his trend lines but for what we saw: three starts in the 1975 World Series, including his final one, Game 6, where he left the game trailing 6-3, beaten but having squeezed out every ounce of effort and competition. Tiant walked off the mound in the top of the eighth to a standing ovation that night, even though he had just given up a home run and his team was six outs from losing the World Series, for the famous season-prolonging Carlton Fisk moment was not yet part of the drama. Tiant has been remembered for his arduous and epic 163-pitch Game 4, where he gave up six hits and four runs in four innings and held a 5-4 lead for the final five innings. He is remembered for competing, for what he gave us.
Gibson, the greatest of the modern-day postseason performers, who became Bob Gibson because he was allowed to in 1964, Game 7, fighting pain and pressure and fatigue and the Yankees to close out a ninth inning. Up 7-3 to start the ninth, Gibson gave up two home runs in exchange for three outs and a championship, allowed to do so by his manager, Johnny Keane, because, Keane said, “I made a commitment to his heart.” From that day forward he was no longer Bob Gibson. He was now feared. A big-game pitcher. He was the Bob Gibson.
In the sixth, I did not care if the Rays’ formula told them to go to the bullpen for another faceless reliever as they counted outs. I cared about Blake Snell, 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner, competing against the Los Angeles Dodgers and whether Snell could find the championship reserve necessary that separates the ones we remember from the ones we do not. I wanted him to have his own right to fail, which is to also say to reap the historical bounties of success — to be remembered for it. Blake Snell can never be a great pitcher without these moments, and without these moments, the game ceases to be great. People might remember final scores, but they recite poetry. If baseball is going to exchange the lyric of competition for the mechanical maximum efficiency of recording 27 soulless, indistinguishable outs, it has already lost. The time for front-office philosophy to dominate the game, to show off its acumen, is during the winter meetings, not the World Series.
A week earlier, down 3-0 in games against the Rays and clinging to a slim lead with his best pitcher on the mound, Dusty Baker left Zack Greinke in the game to compete, for the privilege of failing. He did not fail, and when Greinke came through, the television announcers treated Baker as if he had walked across hot coals. “Dusty Baker, the riverboat gambler …,” the broadcast proclaimed. It was an example of how distant the game has become from why we watch, and from the people who play it.
The games ended amid a pandemic that still remains — and Justin Turner in the photograph stood as a reminder that baseball survived, but not always with honor. Turner, as America and baseball mirror one another, faced no punishment for turning the final game of the year into a potential superspreader event. Nor has baseball acknowledged that it completed its precious World Series while COVID-19 cases spiked in Arlington, Texas, where the games were played. Still, the Dodgers and their fans will bask in their moments, the great Betts dominating a series in which he did not hit well, until it was time to shine; the champion Kershaw, unburdened, at long last; the bittersweet but still at-last champion Kenley Jansen, whose last moment on the mound in the 2020 season was a bizarre and painful Game 4 meltdown that turned what was becoming a 3-1 series laugher into a 2-2 nightmare the Dodgers avoided by winning the final two games and the championship; and the World Series MVP, Corey Seager.
The postseason — highlighted by Betts and Arozarena, the juniors Acuna and Tatis, and all the emerging stars who stood in heavy contrast to Kevin Cash walking to the mound to remove Snell — was the final representative of baseball’s central question of what it wants to be. The players remain the game, their in-game journeys through the pressure of competition, and perhaps the lanky, unfulfilled silhouette of Blake Snell will serve as a reminder, a specter. If the moments when championships are decided do not belong to the players, there’s nothing to see.