The irony is so weird. For the first time in forever, there has been no Little League or youth sports competition in ugly 2020, at least in California. High schools are shut down, big and small businesses have permanently closed, and over 220,000 Americans have perished from COVID-19. But if you live in Los Angeles, professional sports teams have brought you much joy and badly needed therapy.
Only weeks after the Lakers won an NBA title, the Dodgers brought home the bacon too. After a 32 year drought, the boys in blue who play in Chavez Ravine are once again World Series champs. It was deja vu all over again for organizational legends Vin Scully, 92 and Tommy Lasorda, 93. The Dodgers had the best record in baseball during the brief 2020 season, getting the job done with a powerful offense and a pitching staff that had tremendous depth. It was the third time in four years that the Dodgers made it to the final dance, making the victory extra special for manager Dave Roberts, a nice guy who finally got the monkey off his back.
Contrast that to the dangerous Dodgers of the 1980’s and the scenario is strangely similar, except the teams in that era had a bit more to show for its success. Lasorda was the skipper of the ’88 squad that featured the amazing Orel Hershiser, who racked up a 23-8 record and an ERA of 2.26 over 267 innings. But before the “bulldog” came on the scene, it was Fernando Valenzuela who beckoned droves of Mexican fans to Dodger Stadium, and they have never left. Tommy’s Dodgers won the Fall Classic in 1981 when the “Fernandomania” wave began, with the Sonora-born lefty winning both the Rookie of the Year honors plus the Cy Young Award.
The Dodgers 2020 abbreviated season was dominated by Clayton Kershaw, a beloved veteran who was well rested and led his team in two crucial victories against the scrappy Tampa Bay Rays. Another pitcher likely to be compared with Hershiser in the coming years is Walker Buehler, a humble hurler who features a lively fastball that he mixes with several breaking pitches that all have a purpose. Even though he’s probably the number one dude on the hill, a classy Buehler says he’ll “always be number two” as long as Kershaw is still around.
Then there’s Julio Urias, a northern Mexico kid like Valenzuela who is certain be the new Latino super star Los Angeles aficionados have been craving to support. The stocky southpaw can either start or relieve, but was nails out of the bullpen in the World Series, and the 24 year old is likely to take over the closer role for the Dodgers in the not to distant future. Why? Because this is a kid who has been through tremendous adversity in life, and doesn’t cave in during clutch situations.
The Justin Turner controversy created a bitter-sweet moment for the Dodgers during the team’s victory celebration. The Los Angeles third baseman had apparently tested positive for the virus, but manager Roberts wasn’t informed of the results until the seventh inning of game six. Turner was pulled from the game, but was criticized by Major League Baseball for participating in a team picture during the celebration. This is a player who was a major cog in the Dodgers machine during the season, and was in the dugout for most of the game. So it makes no sense for Turner to not be included in a memory the entire team will cherish for a lifetime, especially since it might be the last time the bearded slugger will play in a Dodger uniform.
Turner, 35, has now become a free agent for 2021, and the Dodgers have Edwin Rios, a budding star from Mexico, to take his place for less money. Other players with expired contracts include Joc Pederson, Kike Hernandez, plus high dollar relivers Pedro Baez and Blake Treinen. Not to worry though, as long as the Dodgers stick to the script and stay on course.
Urban Los Angeles has a population of over four million residents, half who are Hispanics and love baseball. The Dodgers are an organization that is set for the long haul with tremendous talent. But the smart move would be to keep Urias in the fold, even though the arbitration process could become expensive. And resign Hernandez, a versatile player who is loved by everyone who will buy tickets, at least if this COVID mess finally ends.
The Dodgers brass need to keep two important things in mind moving forward. The key is to keep winning and when things get back to normal, make sure that the team’s broad fan base remains happy. Latinos buy tickets, Dodger dogs and beer just like everybody else. And they would love to see heroes on the field who look somewhat like them.