The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Dodgers have been chasing Kirk Gibson’s ghost since 1988. The pursuit can be suffocating.

Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts gives Clayton Kershaw a hug after pulling him during the sixth inning of Game 5. (David J. Phillip/AP)

ARLINGTON, Tex. — Orel Hershiser has nothing to do with Clayton Kershaw. Kirk Gibson has no impact on Mookie Betts. What Tommy Lasorda did with his pitching 32 Octobers ago has no relation to when Dave Roberts will lift Tony Gonsolin, his starter in Game 6 of this World Series.

The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers have a chance to win the World Series on Tuesday night. Fail then, and they have another chance Wednesday in Game 7. This is about the pandemic-shortened season being completed in a bubble, about Justin Turner and Corey Seager, not Mickey Hatcher and Alfredo Griffin.


“It’s interesting,” Roberts, in his fifth year as the Dodgers’ manager, said Monday. “We’ve heard it a lot, and we’ve seen a lot of highlights, and it’s fantastic. But I think that we want to make our own mark on Dodgers history.”

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The 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers will tell you that what happened in 1988, when the franchise last won the World Series, has no impact on this year’s team. I’m here to tell you that’s not true.

What is true: Fans, of course, typically know more about history than players. That’s not because players are ignorant. It’s because fans live it, grow up with it and revel in it. A 50-year-old Dodgers fan pulling for Betts and Gonsolin on Tuesday night was an 18-year-old Dodgers fan pulling for Hershiser and Hatcher in 1988 — the year Kershaw was born, the year Gibson hobbled to the plate to face Dennis Eckersley, Oakland’s unhittable closer, in Game 1 and took him deep. The Dodgers rolled in five games.

Those high-water marks are euphoric until they become suffocating. They not only cast as legends the participants on those particular nights, but they provide a standard by which every ensuing team must be measured. As Roberts said Sunday night, “Ultimately, my job is to help the Dodgers win the World Series,” a phrase he has uttered repeatedly during his tenure. That’s what Lasorda did all those years ago. That’s what Roberts must do now.

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So far, he hasn’t, and that colors everything, both for his team and for his town. Players come and go. Why get sucked in? But for fans, there is a shared, communal experience in all the suffering between titles. It defines an avocation that consumes hours that add up to days that add up to weeks. The data points of disappointment — sweeps in the division series in 1995 and ’96, National League Championship Series losses in 2008, ’09, ’13 and ’16, a Game 7 World Series loss to the (cheatin’) Astros in 2017, Howie Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam last fall — congeal into heartburn and heartbreak. Those are distinctly different sensations, but they’re both miserable.

It is both appropriate and convenient for players who grew up all over the country and the world to dismiss those experiences as they’re pursuing their own goals. But the reminders of what they haven’t accomplished pop up everywhere in what others did.

Two years ago, back when the World Series could be played in ballparks packed with fans of the home team, the Dodgers opened their first home game of the series by handing a ball to Lasorda, the then-91-year-old former manager. The next night, Hershiser, the then-60-year-old right-hander, drew the honor, throwing to Hatcher, who homered in the decisive fifth game, which Hershiser won.

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They were ceremonial first pitches that had no relation to the action over those evenings. Still, they were heroes of another era — a championship era — thrown in the face of the team trying to make them more distant memories. There is a weight that comes every time Lasorda or Hershiser or Gibson walks on that field, shakes a hand, waves to a standing ovation. It doesn’t affect how a Dodger fields a groundball or repeats his mechanics. It affects something more than that: daily life. The ways a city feels about itself, about its team, about its chances are all woven into that game that night. The players’ job is to deny it. They can’t help but hear it, carry it, wear it.

“People [in this clubhouse] want to stop talking about — no offense — Kirk Gibson and all those guys,” reliever Kenley Jansen said. “They’ve been waiting a long time.”

Jansen said those words in 2017, when the Dodgers were in the World Series for the first time since 1988. He was signed by the organization as a catcher in 2004. He arrived in the majors in 2010, two years after Kershaw, the ace left-hander. They entered the organization knowing nothing of Dodger history. Through perennial October disappointments — eight straight division titles, zero championships — they’ve lived it.

“Yeah, 1988,” Kershaw said. “We’ve heard that a lot.”

This isn’t a uniquely Dodger experience. It has manifested itself in other towns and other sports. In 2016, the Chicago Cubs were built to break a 108-year championship drought. Playing in their first World Series since 1945, they lost their first two home games to the Cleveland Indians to fall behind, 3-1. For long stretches of those games, Wrigley Field became not a raucous bandbox that spurred on the home team but a tense, nervous cauldron that brought all the failures of the past to the corner of Waveland and Sheffield.

The vibe was so suffocating that when the Cubs squeaked out a Game 5 victory and prepared to board a plane the next day to Cleveland, Dave Martinez, then the Cubs’ bench coach, plopped into a seat on the bus and said to a front-office member, “We just need to get out of town.” Neither Steve Bartman nor any billy goat rode that bus or occupied the clubhouse. But that cursed past unquestionably contributed to the environment around the team. In Cleveland, removed from those reminders, the Cubs won twice.

Any fan of, say, the Washington Capitals knows this feeling, too. Take any Game 7 at the building downtown, whether it was MCI Center, Verizon Center or Capital One Arena at the time — against Pittsburgh in 2009 or ’17, against Montreal in 2010. Fall behind, and the building all but folds in on itself. The players on the ice weren’t responsible for all the failures that preceded them. But all the failures that preceded them informed the atmosphere, which eats at stomach linings and causes bile to build in the back of throats. In my mind, it’s not a coincidence that when the Capitals finally won the Stanley Cup, each of their series-clinching wins came on the road.

Maybe, then, the Dodgers could be freed by going for this championship not in the chaos of Dodger Stadium but in isolation in Texas. It rained here Monday, but the Dodgers planned to have barbecue brought into their bubble for a team meal. They might have talked about the opposing Tampa Bay Rays. They most certainly didn’t talk about 1988, which will define the Dodgers until it doesn’t.