“I will appreciate everyone who made this possible for as long as I live,” Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Charlie Morton said.
A worthy sentiment. Now, let’s make sure this never happens again.
Morton’s teammate Brandon Lowe — the former Maryland Terrapin — made this a series Wednesday night, homering twice in Game 2 to provide the basis for a 6-4 Tampa Bay victory that evened the series at a game apiece, offset the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dominance in the opener, and made it seem more likely than not this will be a series that goes the distance — or close to it. Lowe homered once off Dodgers’ opener Tony Gonsolin, who was lifted after four outs, and once off reliever Dustin May, the fourth of seven Los Angeles pitchers — all after entering the game just 6 for 56 in the 2020 postseason.
“You’re trying to do the toughest thing there is to do in sports, and that’s hit a baseball,” Tampa Bay Manager Kevin Cash said. “... You’ve got to be able to be tough-minded, and Brandon is.”
And yet what stands out more about the series thus far aren’t the performances, but the oddness of it all. Inevitable oddness, for sure. Still, so odd.
That feel is anchored in the environment. World Series crowds are unmistakable, and not necessarily because they’re louder than their earlier-October counterparts. They’re — what is it, exactly? They’re edgier. Sometimes, what stands out more isn’t the explosion after the home team makes a diving stab or hits one to the gap with the bases loaded, but rather the uncomfortable murmurs that grip the home fans when their team trails. That nervous energy, it’s an unmistakable October staple.
Yet with 11,472 fans scattered throughout massive Globe Life Field — a neutral site, even if the public address announcer began the evening by bellowing, “It’s time for Dodger baseball!” and the “home” Dodgers played their own walk-up music — it’s just not attainable. The fans, they’re trying. But it’s impossible not to remember, say, the absolute angst that gripped Wrigley Field when the Cubs fell behind Cleveland three games to one in 2016, or the euphoria at Fenway Park when the Red Sox closed out St. Louis at home in 2013. These games could be good. Neither ambiance could be created here.
But the situation at Globe Life Field provides a constant reminder of the moment we’re living through, which is still fraught. It’s almost a window of what the sport went through — along with the rest of the country — to get to this moment, which was an unsettling interruption.
When spring training began back in February, no one could have predicted the pandemic would have upset our lives — let alone strangled sports — to the degree it did and still does. A future shutdown of this sport is less likely to come from an airborne virus that kills more than 200,000 Americans — we can hope, at least — and more likely to be the result of labor strife.
Major League Baseball and the players’ union didn’t get along before the pandemic. They never agreed to a return-to-play plan before the owners imposed a 60-game season. And they have an epic negotiation to come, because the current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the 2021 season. Given that the virus is still here and we don’t yet have a vaccine, we have precisely zero idea what that season will look like — on the calendar, in the stands, in payrolls, any of it.
What’s undeniable, though: the 60-game regular season that resulted both from the pandemic that shut the sport down and the labor squabbles that delayed the restart felt compromised. That was true from a public health standpoint, particularly when the virus raced through the clubhouses of, first, the Miami Marlins and then the St. Louis Cardinals. It became hard to concentrate on wins and losses, on homers and strikeouts — and not just for fans.
“There’s just so much uncertainty,” one general manager said late in the season. “You’ll come across a period in the day where you kind of forget about it, and then something will hit you in the face that is a firm reminder of the different environment that we’re dealing with. And then, of course, you navigate your day, and at night you’re on pins and needles to get the all-negative [on coronavirus tests]. That’s stressful. And that’s every day.”
In so many ways, baseball is fortunate that the two teams with the best records in the game — by far — advanced to this World Series. Houston vs. the Dodgers would have provided the most drama — and, for sure, better TV ratings — because the cheatin’ Astros beat Los Angeles back in 2017, the year they were banging on trash cans and swiping signs. Yet had Houston beaten Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, you would have looked at the regular season standings — forever — and noted that a team that went 29-31 in the regular season won the pennant. The Dodgers were on pace to win 116 games, the Rays 108. They’re both legit — even if they didn’t have to navigate the normal challenges that come over six months and 162 games, which are both unpredictable and inevitable.
So this whole season is colored by the same numbers that defined last year: 19-31. That, of course, was the Washington Nationals’ record after the first 50 games in 2019. They went 74-38 the rest of the way and won the World Series. That was also the Nats’ record after the first 50 games in 2020. They went 7-3 the rest of the way — and the season ended, and they missed the playoffs.
Baseball in 2020 was a physical and mental struggle and strain that fit with the struggles and strains of society. It was difficult to pull off, felt awkward at times, but has led us to a strange-but-worthwhile World Series in which the crowds are small, the interactions are few, the masks are up, and the results could be thrilling.
“It’s weird to not be in the press room,” Morton said. “It’s weird to go to the stadium and not see the parking lot filled with people, and local TV crews hanging out. You name it. It’s weird. It’s sad. But it’s still very exciting.”
Exciting in the moment? Sure. But however the 2020 World Series turns out, it will be defined more by the short but stressful season that preceded it, the logistical gymnastics it took to stage it, the environment in which it was played — all the oddities and one-offs — than it will be the team that hoists the trophy.