Walker Buehler got engaged during the pandemic-caused spring shutdown, and with his two future brothers-in-law, he spent time building three decks at their ol’ Kentucky homes. One each, at his house and theirs.
Though far from where Buehler will be spending his next few months, the work in Kentucky mirrored, in a way, his organization’s ongoing gallop toward what it hopes will be its first World Series championship since 1988. As the page turns following three consecutive bitter season endings, both the romance and the construction continue for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
So close, yet so far away, so many times.
Few teams are as practiced at the art of turning the page, which is where we pick up the story of the 2020 Dodgers as the pandemic clouds recede enough from the sports world to allow the season to finally begin, albeit one cut down to a 60-game stretch run.
Behind the blockbuster deal for Mookie Betts and David Price, with Justin Turner (and, ahem, Betts) on deck for free agency, Father Time chasing Clayton Kershaw and closer Kenley Jansen, more depth than anybody in the game and a payroll that trails only the Yankees, the Dodgers arguably have both more to gain and more to lose than any other club this season.
“That’s probably fair,” slugger Max Muncy said. “It’s a unique situation. We have a very good team and one of the best players in the game [Betts] that could possibly be walking after this year.
“We all know how good he is. We’re very hungry after what happened last year. To not be playing any games is a punch in the gut right now.”
But even at 60 games, it’s far better for Los Angeles than what could have been. Can you imagine if the season was canceled and Betts became a free agent and signed elsewhere without ever having worn a Dodgers uniform in a regular-season game? And after Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman put the pedal to the metal and sent outfielder Alex Verdugo and valued prospect Jeter Downs to Boston for, basically, Price?
You take what you can get, which is why Buehler views the team’s all-in offseason a bit differently. “At some point, we made the trade,” he said. “It’s done. Mookie Betts is a Dodger for the season, and I think we’re gaining with any game we play because at some point we thought we weren’t going to play any games this season.”
Manager Dave Roberts spent the downtime this spring doing what he does best: communicating, team-building, coaxing, prodding and doing everything in his power—from his home—to keep his players together and engaged. Though it may seem like it occurred years ago now, Roberts and every player still vividly recall that day when newbie Betts, before the second full-squad workout of the spring, made a heartfelt clubhouse speech to his teammates asking for urgency every day this summer, from mundane backfield drills in early spring to batting practice sessions during the dog days of August. The Dodgers were both surprised and impressed by the low-key Betts’ take-charge move, and as the coronavirus-plagued days ticked off the calendar in the spring and early summer, the moment echoed.
“The time we did have together was huge,” Roberts said during a social distancing interview in his driveway at home in San Diego during the self-isolation portion of the spring. “Now I feel confident that when … we play in ’20, that the integration, the team aspect of it is intact. If we didn’t have it, there’d be a lot more uncertainty.
“I do like the way we infused some new players who came from different organizations and had different ways of looking at things. It was talked about how Mookie stepped up and initiated a meeting. That’s been very good for us. But you really don’t know until you start playing games.”
Dave Roberts spent the weeks in which baseball was shut down at his home near San Diego, from where he kept in touch with his players and coaches in virtual meetings.Scott Miller
Roberts made small lists of groupings of players and coaches and each day during the shutdown made sure to communicate with a different group. Mostly, he used FaceTime because he prefers looking at his players, seeing their faces, reading their eyes and smiles. Though they touched on baseball, the tone of many of the conversations was significantly different than the subjects usually discussed while in uniform.
“During the season, you’re talking and communicating, but a lot of it is on the surface with baseball,” Roberts said. “I do try and stay in tune with their families. But now you get more in-depth with them because it’s not really about baseball, it’s about their families and how they’re faring. In all things now, there’s a lot more transparency.
“I think with athletes now you’re seeing a lot more behind the scenes. With celebrities, with everyone. And so even at my level, peeling back the layers of players, it’s been really cool.”
Like most everyone else, Roberts chuckled at the workout video clips of pitcher Joe Kelly’s errant throw that sailed through one of the windows of his house. But Roberts especially enjoyed Kelly’s wife’s Instagram post of Joe’s home workouts, including a sled push involving Ashley. The Kellys had twins during the hiatus.
The organization stayed connected with fans through Zoom chats between season-ticket holders, players, staff and executives. The players themselves kept in contact through a text thread, Roberts said, which he hopes pulls them together even tighter. He acknowledged that one of the first things he’ll need to assess as they reconvene is where their heads are, how the worry currently facing the country is affecting each of them.
On the field, everyone in baseball knows how talented they are.
But as this brief season essentially begins immediately with the pennant race, it might not matter because their margin for error is dramatically lowered in a schedule that will invite all sorts of fluke occurrences.
Consider the Dodgers’ current streak of winning seven consecutive NL West titles.
If those seasons had lasted just 60 games, like this one, the Dodgers would have won just two division titles. After 60 games during the streak, the Dodgers would have finished last in 2013, second in ’14 and ’16, tied for second in ’17 and third in ’18. Arizona would have won the division in ’13 and ’18, San Francisco would have won in ’14 and ’16, and Colorado would have won in ’17.
In fact, the Dodgers wouldn’t have even made the playoffs in three of those seven seasons: ’13, ’16 and ’18.
Partly because of the increased chances for unpredictability and partly because a baseball player’s mantra is to deal with what is directly in front of him and not worry about the past or the future, the Dodgers, to a man, say that if they can win their first World Series since ’88 this year, it would be every bit as meaningful as if they had won it following the traditional 162-game schedule.
“A World Series is a World Series,” Muncy said. “There are still going to be playoffs that are the same as in years past. You still have to get through teams in the playoffs, get through the other team in the World Series.
“To me, if anything, winning a World Series this year would almost be tougher because certain teams get really hot for a month or two and then cool off, and if we’re going to play a shortened season, whatever team gets hot early can ride it out, and if they start to cool off, there might not be time to catch up. You’re going to see teams make the playoffs that haven’t made the playoffs in a long time.”
“I understand why someone would say [it doesn’t mean as much] in a short year; I get that,” he said. “But to me, in a lot of ways, in earning the right to be a world champion, the more adversity you go through, the bigger the accomplishment.
Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler won’t have much time to round into form thanks to a 60-game schedule that begins in late July.Gregory Bull/Associated Press/Associated Press
“This country, this sport, our team is going through some stuff. If you win and can go through and end up winning, the playoffs will be the same: facing really good teams, and you’ve got to win the last game.”
In a strange summer, one of the strangest sights if the Dodgers make a deep playoff run will be the sea of empty seats in Dodger Stadium if COVID-19 keeps ballparks on lockdown all year, as expected. The relationship between the Dodgers and their fans has been one of the great romances in all of sports.
Not only did the club set a single-season franchise attendance record in 2019 with 3.974 million fans—the second record-setting year in a row—but the Dodgers now have led MLB in attendance for seven consecutive seasons. They also led MLB in combined home and road attendance last year, playing in front of 6.682 million fans.
“It will be tough because Dodgers fans are an incredible group, to me the best fans in baseball,” Muncy said. “They support us no matter what. It’s going to be hard on them not getting to go to the stadium and seeing the players. It will be hard on the players too because it gets you fired up, and we’re not going to have that.”
Price, who last pitched in Dodger Stadium when he started and won the clinching game of the 2018 World Series, is disappointed that his Los Angeles debut will happen in a quiet Chavez Ravine.
“Playing with no fans, that’s tough,” Price said. “Players feed off of that fan energy so much.
“You have two strikes on a hitter in a big situation with the fans on their feet making noise, it takes you to a different place, a place you can’t make yourself go otherwise. That [will] be tough playing in front of zero fans.”
But the good news for Price, 34, and the Dodgers is that the former Cy Young winner (2012) felt strong during the first phase of spring training following surgery to remove a cyst on his left wrist last September.
“Feeling-wise, health-wise, it’s one of the better spring trainings I’ve had in my career,” Price said in early June. “I was feeling strong and everything was feeling good.”
Weeks after the season was put on hold, his takeaway is that if he felt that good in February and March, nothing should change now—even if he didn’t find somebody to throw to at his new home in Arizona until several weeks into the break. “Our backyard has a pretty good slope to it in one part,” Price said in early May. “It’s probably not perfect dimensions of mound height and all that, but it can definitely serve its purpose to me getting out and playing meaningful games of catch.”
Another veteran Dodgers pitcher who impressed when they last convened is Clayton Kershaw, 32, who, Roberts said, “Was as healthy as he’s been since I’ve been with the Dodgers.” The manager also gave high marks to closer Kenley Jansen, who battled hamstring issues last year. “He’s throwing the baseball as well as he’s thrown it in years, so yeah, where we’re at, there’s a lot of reasons to be excited.”
The return of Joc Pederson is another. The Dodgers had him traded across town to the Angels in the original three-team Betts deal last winter before the final pieces changed. Now that the NL will use the designated hitter? The Dodgers, as they say, ran into one. Pederson’s lefty bat might have been nearly squeezed out of an outfield of Betts, Most Valuable Player Cody Bellinger and A.J. Pollock—with Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez in the mix as well—but now, with the DH, Pederson’s slugging (36 homers last year) suddenly becomes even more valuable.
Acquired in a February trade along with Mookie Betts, David Price arrives in Los Angeles after having gone 46-24 with a 3.84 ERA in four seasons with the Red Sox.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press
But with the surplus of talent the Dodgers have had in recent years, optimism has never been in short supply. Validation has been.
Whatever the circumstances, the Dodgers must finish turning the page they started to turn in February and March if they want to get off to the kind of fast start they’ll need to return to the postseason and exorcise the ghosts of recent failures.
The Dodgers’ .606 winning percentage (393-256) over the past four seasons is the National League‘s best. And Roberts’ 393 wins through his first four full seasons as an MLB manager ranks him fourth all time behind Frank Chance (426), Billy Southworth (413) and Earl Weaver (398), according to STATS LLC.
They’ve done it all except win that elusive ring.
Now, 60 games or 162, the job description remains the same.
“You can look at a season and speak to the rigors of getting through the postseason, and that’s seven-and-a-half months,” Roberts said. “And now if you look at this … it’s considerably shorter. But you could almost argue that to stay ready physically, mentally, emotionally, to pick back up in this sprint of a season is equally as hard and possibly more difficult than the conventional way we’re used to seeing how the season progresses.
“Whatever the season in front of us, it will constitute a full season because everyone is on the same level playing field. It’s certainly going to be a sprint, but I’d certainly say if we were to win it, I’d get just as much satisfaction.
“The parade might look different, but I still would consider us the 2020 champions. And I think any team that wins in 2020 would feel the same way.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.