We understand sports as a story without knowing the ending. A midseason slump is a sign of clubhouse dysfunction and impending collapse—or an obstacle to overcome on a path back toward triumph. A clutch home run from an unlikely hero is a deus ex machina—or a footnote, a blip, in a loss. A playoff run is a step to build on next season—or the unknown-in-the-moment high point for a whole franchise arc.
The Dodgers’ story has been adding chapters for years, but lately the tale has felt trapped in an unusual sort of stasis. This isn’t a mere meta-observation; the players felt it, too. When the team trailed in the 2020 NLCS, pitcher Alex Wood noted that after so many deep postseason runs without payoff, “You can start to feel stagnant a little bit. … Things like this have become almost expected and normal.”
For eight seasons, the Dodgers have been winning their division, and for eight postseasons, the Dodgers have been losing, unable to capitalize on the numerous opportunities for a title. The story lines brewed, their ultimate resolution murky as ever: Would Clayton Kershaw ever make two star-worthy starts in a series? Would the team ever stop blowing large series leads? Would the MLB club with the most enviable combination of money and player development show exactly why those advantages matter?
Resolution finally arrived Tuesday, in the strangest circumstances: a “home” game in Arlington, Texas; under a closed roof; in front of 11,437 fans watching the ending to a season that almost didn’t happen. And perhaps shouldn’t have happened, given the international context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which immediately soured the postgame festivities as viewers learned that Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner had been removed for receiving a positive coronavirus test result midgame. The specifics and timing of Turner’s positive test after MLB went weeks without a COVID-19 case—and Turner’s subsequent appearance during the celebration—will need a separate resolution.
Amid those surreal and contradictory circumstances, and after World Series losses in 2017 and 2018 and so many other crushing playoff losses besides, the Dodgers clinched their first World Series title in 32 years, with a 3-1 victory in Game 6 against the Rays.
This title didn’t come easy—even in the winning, the story added twists and uncertain turns. The Dodgers overcame a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS, including in-game deficits in Games 5 and 7. They threw away Game 4 in the World Series with errors pulled from a Little League blooper reel. They fell behind in the first inning of Game 6, and stayed behind until the sixth inning.
But such disastrous on-field developments in the moment transform into plot points, ever more instances of rising action, in retrospect. The climax of this particular tale came in the late innings of Game 6, when the Rays’ Kevin Cash made the managerial decision that launched a thousand second guesses. With starter Blake Snell cruising—5 1/3 scoreless innings; two hits; nine strikeouts, including six of the first three hitters in the Dodgers’ order—Cash called upon reliever Nick Anderson rather than let Snell pitch a third time through the order. For about a year, Anderson was the best reliever in baseball; this postseason, however, he’d gone a record-tying six consecutive games allowing at least one run.
Anderson broke that unsavory record within five pitches Tuesday—a setback in the Rays’ story and a propulsive moment in the Dodgers’. With Austin Barnes on first base after a single, Mookie Betts ripped a double down the line. Both runners moved up on a wild pitch, and Betts scored to take the lead on a Corey Seager ground ball. Betts later added a home run for an insurance run. Meanwhile, six Dodgers relievers combined to hold the Rays scoreless after the first.
On one hand, the Dodgers haven’t been particularly unlucky as a franchise. They’ve won eight division titles in a row; with the typical playoff structure and a one-in-eight chance each time, they “should” have won just one title in that span. The math extends over the entire so-called World Series drought, too: With 30 teams in the league, if clubs had an equal shot, the Dodgers would win one title about every 30 years, so they didn’t miss the mark by much.
But baseball teams don’t have an equal shot, and the Dodgers don’t have many equals. They’ve run a top-five payroll in each of the past eight seasons, including the no. 1 payroll four times; meanwhile, their player development machine has produced stars out of midround draft picks and other teams’ castoffs. The two tentpoles of their success often intersect, as when they traded expendable prospects for Betts, then extended the MVP outfielder for 12 years and $365 million before he’d played a single game.
Rather than an average team with an average championship chance, the Dodgers are mainstays of modern postseason baseball. Since 2013, the club has played 84 postseason games; Houston’s in second place with 63, and every other team has half as many as the Dodgers or fewer.
That exposition was in place before this postseason. As Ben Lindbergh wrote Tuesday, unlike with the upstart Rays, every casual October viewer knew all about these Dodgers—the key characters and long-running story lines, the strengths and most powerful memories, the faults and many foibles—before this latest run.
Yet the resolution remained uncertain, as did the story’s legacy in turn. In a sports culture that values championships above all, the 1990s Bills penned a tragedy rather than an inspiring tale. The Dodgers needed to win to transform their own genre, lest the stagnancy felt by Wood and fans across Dodger nation curdle further, and the questions surrounding Kershaw and Dave Roberts and Co. grow ever bolder in the team’s pages.
On a broader timescale, the Dodgers’ story is still not complete. Almost as many new questions arise. Will they win more championships? (They’ll be the best team heading into next season, but nobody has repeated since the 1998-2000 Yankees.) Will they challenge the record for consecutive postseason appearances? (They’re only a little more than halfway to Atlanta’s 14 in a row, but if the playoff field is permanently expanded, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers ever missing.) Will they ever finish with a losing record again? (They haven’t done so in a decade, and their worst record since 2012 is 91-71.)
Those answers will come eventually; Hollywood loves a sequel, after all, and with the core of this championship team, which won the equivalent of 116 games in this shortened season, returning along with a host of compelling new characters, the Dodgers could well cement a postseason in addition to a regular-season dynasty.
But those new questions and answers belong to the sequel. At long last, resolution to the first edition is here, in the final strike of the 2020 World Series darting into Barnes’s glove behind the plate. All those postseason stumbles are now definitively part of a slow climb to the top of the sport, rather than inescapable symptoms of Sisyphean failure. The ultimate arc of a story is so much clearer when the ending is finally revealed.