The road to a Dodgers World Series title was one never before traveled

Dodgers players celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the World Series.
Dodgers players celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the World Series on Oct. 27 to win their first World Series title since 1988.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Share

Julio Urías, once a teenage phenom from Sinaloa, Mexico, threw the final pitch of the 2020 major league baseball season, the one that ended the Dodgers’ championship drought in a 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6 of the World Series.

Clayton Kershaw, tormented by Octobers past, watched the end from the bullpen beyond the right-field wall at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. He walked slowly with his arms raised. He had reached the elusive pinnacle minutes from his childhood home of all places. He tried his best to absorb the feeling of winning the Dodgers’ first World Series since 1988.

Mookie Betts, the new franchise cornerstone acquired for this moment, chucked his hat in the air in right field. Corey Seager, the finally healthy metronome that fueled the offense all October and became World Series MVP, found Kiké Hernández, his middle infield partner, for a hug.

“We did it!” they said over and over as they spun around together before joining the rest of their teammates for the celebration they wanted for so long.

Advertisement

Complete coverage of the Dodgers winning their first World Series championship since 1988 after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 World Series.

But it was nothing like they envisioned. It took place at a neutral site in front of a limited crowd. Many of their loved ones — parents and siblings and close friends — were left to watch from afar, up in the stands, unable to physically rejoice with them. And Justin Turner, their pulse and leader, was nowhere to be found.

The third baseman, a free agent after the season, had talked about that scene for years. He imagined the emotions. The satisfaction. The relief. The sheer elation. But Turner wasn’t on the field to jump with joy or to watch commissioner Rob Manfred, after absorbing a chorus of boos, hand over the coveted piece of metal to the Dodgers. He was tucked away in a room by the home clubhouse because of a positive test for the coronavirus.

He emerged wearing a mask minutes later. He took photos with the trophy. He sat in the front row for the team shot. He kissed his wife and hugged his teammates. They wanted him there. Major League Baseball did not, and controversy erupted. It was a fitting conclusion to an unprecedented year.

Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner poses for a photo while standing next to his wife, Kourtney Pogue.
Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner poses for a photo while standing next to his wife, Kourtney Pogue, and holding the World Series trophy.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“So people are going to say whatever they’re going to say but if there’s an opportunity to win a championship, we’re going to show up every day and work toward that goal and do everything we can to win it.”

Justin Turner, Dodgers third baseman, on legitimacy of World Series title in shortened season

Advertisement

The season began like every other one. Clubs reported for spring training in February ready for the usual 162-game endurance test. The Dodgers believed they were the best equipped to not only handle the long schedule but to finally outlast the competition in October.

They expect to win the World Series every year, but this time was different. This time, they had Betts and his five-tool skill set, acquired in a heist from the Boston Red Sox, to roam right field and punish pitchers atop a loaded lineup. They believed he was the final ingredient.

But the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, not adding one of the best players in baseball to a loaded roster, was the topic of conversation for the first week of spring training. Players called the Astros’ apologies weak. They criticized Manfred for granting players immunity and insisted the championship Houston won against them in 2017 was tarnished. Speaking out so forcefully, they hoped, would remind everyone that Houston’s transgressions were serious.

A series-by-series look at how the Dodgers beat the Brewers, Padres, Braves and Rays to win their first World Series title since 1988 this season.

Betts, meanwhile, seamlessly fit into the veteran clubhouse. He won teammates over within a week of spring training for his unrelenting work ethic and the five-minute clubhouse speech he gave at Camelback Ranch before their second day of full-squad workouts. The short talk, stressing urgency and accountability, galvanized his peers.

“That kind of message resonated with everyone,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

Two weeks later, the pandemic forced MLB to shut down operations. Suddenly, Betts, a free agent at the end of the season, wasn’t guaranteed to play a meaningful game in a Dodger uniform. The best team the Dodgers put together in recent memory wondered if it would have a chance to compete for a title. Billions of dollars were on the line across the 30 franchises. But no team had more to lose than the Dodgers.

Nearly four months later, they gathered to confront a new challenge. Clubs were given three weeks at their home ballparks to prepare for a 60-game regular season without fans during a pandemic. Coronavirus tests were conducted every other day, but procedural hiccups across the league quickly cast doubts. Reaching opening day, let alone completing the season, seemed iffy at best.

Pitcher David Price, left, and right fielder Mookie Betts are introduced as Dodgers at a news conference.
Pitcher David Price, left, and right fielder Mookie Betts are introduced as Dodgers at a news conference at Dodger Stadium on Feb. 12.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Several major leaguers, including Dodgers left-hander David Price, decided not to participate in the season. Dozens of players across the league tested positive — the Dodgers had seven players on their 40-man roster report late to camp because of positive tests — but the league plowed forward.

Advertisement

The Dodgers held intrasquad scrimmages inside an empty Dodger Stadium. The new batter’s eye — a product of the ballpark’s significant offseason renovations — drew criticism from players. Artificial crowd noise was piped in to prepare for the regular season. Sessions with the media were held in Zoom webinars from the Dodgers’ news conference room. Questions about the season’s legitimacy, whether an asterisk belongs alongside this year’s champion, surfaced immediately. The Dodgers dismissed them.

“I think if there’s a championship to be won, we’re going to do everything in our power to win that championship,” Turner said July 3. “So people are going to say whatever they’re going to say but if there’s an opportunity to win a championship, we’re going to show up every day and work toward that goal and do everything we can to win it.”

The Dodgers were so low on bodies for scrimmages that Francisco “Chico” Herrera, a clubhouse attendant, regularly played left field for one of the teams. Within days, No. 97 was the star of summer camp for his defensive prowess. His highlights spread on social media and onto television. Fans and players lobbied to have manager Dave Roberts #LetChicoHit. He never did, but the Legend of Chico was born.

×
VIDEO | 04:59
Chico: the making of a Dodger legend

Francisco Herrera, the man known as Chico, has been a Dodgers clubhouse attendant since 2008. Here’s how he rose to summer camp stardom with the team.

The league survived the camp stage. The Dodgers held their last workout July 21. The next day Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million contract extension, effectively making him a Dodger for the remainder of his career. The morning after that, the Dodgers announced Kershaw, hours before his ninth career opening day start, was placed on the injured list with a back problem.

The Dodgers won anyway, beating the San Francisco Giants 8-1 at Dodger Stadium, and all eyes were on Betts.

The night began with Betts, the son of a Vietnam War veteran, kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. A couple of hours later, his talents coaxed the spotlight. The sequence was a sign of things to come: Betts lined a single for his first hit as a Dodger and eventually scored on a groundball to the second baseman, just beating the throw with a headfirst slide.

Four days later, the Dodgers boarded a flight to Houston for their first trip of the strange season against the team they believe cheated them out of a championship. They swept a two-game series from the Astros, but not before Joe Kelly incited a benches-clearing ruckus with a couple of pitches and a pouting face to earn a suspension.

Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly makes his now-famous pouty face toward Houston's Carlos Correa.
Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly makes his now-famous pouty face toward Astros shortstop Carlos Correa on July 28 in Houston.
(Bob Levey / Getty Images)

The Dodgers began the season 11-7 before beating the San Diego Padres, their new chief competition in the National League West, to ignite a run. They won 11 of their next 13 games to firmly establish themselves as the best team in the majors. Then they put baseball on the backburner.

Advertisement

On Aug. 26, three days after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by police in Kenosha, Wis., Betts informed the team he wouldn’t play that night against the Giants out of protest. He told teammates he would support them if they decided to proceed as normal. But they decided to stand by him and not play. The game was postponed to the next day as part of a seven-inning doubleheader.

“We made a collective group decision to not play tonight, to let our voices be heard for standing up for what we believe is right,” Kershaw said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

The Dodgers swept the doubleheader and continued rolling. They avoided a coronavirus outbreak, lost one series all season, and finished 43-17 to win their eighth straight division title. The .717 win percentage was the highest by any team since 1954. They scored the most runs. They compiled the best ERA. They were expected to win the World Series.

How the Dodgers went from a team in shambles mired in bankruptcy to a World Series-winning club in 10 years is a testament to their ownership.

“This year, I think certainly would be more special, I think, if it could even be possible,” Roberts said the day before the postseason began. “We’ve all gone through a lot.”

The reward for compiling the best record in the majors was playing a three-game series at home in an expanded 16-team playoff format before going into a bubble 1,400 miles away. The Dodgers swept the Milwaukee Brewers, the National League’s No. 8 seed, to move on to play the Padres in the National League Division Series in the bubble in Texas.

“With the expanded playoffs,” Kershaw said, “it’s kind of like now the postseason is starting.”

It was considered a marquee matchup. The Padres posted the second-best record in the National League. They were talented and they badly wanted to beat the Dodgers, a combination that brewed a higher level of intensity during the clubs’ 10 regular-season meetings.

But the Padres were short-handed. They received one combined inning from their two best pitchers — Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet — because of injuries. The heated series ended in a three-game sweep.

Cody Bellinger's home-run robbing catch on a ball hit by San Diego's Fernando Tatis Jr. in Game 2 of the NLDS on Oct. 7.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Advertisement

It took until the National League Championship Series for the Dodgers to confront adversity. The Atlanta Braves featured a strong bullpen and one of the few lineups that rivaled the Dodgers’. They, too, had swept through the first two rounds.

For the first time, the NLCS was played without any days off. The schedule figured to favor the Dodgers. It made starting pitching depth more important and the Dodgers carried five capable starters. The Braves had two followed by questions.

The shortcoming didn’t stop Atlanta from taking a 3-1 series lead to push the Dodgers’ season to the brink. The Dodgers needed to win three games in three days to avoid elimination. They pulled it off, winning Game 7 on a go-ahead home run by Cody Bellinger, to advance to the World Series for the third time in four years.

“Man, we never gave up, this team never quit,” Seager said, minutes after he was named the NLCS MVP. “We came out every night and expected to win, even when we were down 3-1.”

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts celebrates after leaping to catch a Marcell Ozuna.
Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts celebrates after leaping to catch a Marcell Ozuna drive in the fifth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves on Oct. 17.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Those seven games were the first in 2020 with fans in attendance. Globe Life Field was filled to just one-quarter capacity, but the difference was striking. The atmosphere intensified. It felt more like playoff baseball. The crowds tilted in the Braves’ favor for the NLCS. They were firmly in the Dodgers’ corner in the World Series.

The matchup pitted the teams with the league’s best records for the first time since 2013, but the Dodgers entered as heavy favorites. It didn’t come easily. The Rays had arguably the best bullpen in the sport, three elite starting pitchers, and Randy Arozarena, the postseason’s breakout superstar.

And yet the Dodgers were one out from a commanding 3-1 series lead in Game 4 until mind-bending disaster struck. The series of events began when Brett Phillips, a bench player with a .202 career batting average, hit a flare single to center field off Kenley Jansen, who had effectively lost his job as closer earlier in the postseason but found himself on the mound to protect a one-run lead.

MLB says Justin Turner ‘emphatically refused to comply’ with league security when he returned to the field after testing positive for the coronavirus.

The hit tied the score. Then Chris Taylor, manning center field for the Dodgers, booted the ball, giving Arozarena an opportunity to score from first base. Then Arozarena tripped and fell 45 feet from home plate. Then Dodgers catcher Will Smith dropped the relay throw, allowing Arozarena, who had started retreating to third base, to score the winning run.

Advertisement

The Dodgers walked off the field stunned while the Rays deliriously celebrated. Later that night, after the shock dissipated, Kershaw sent a group text message to his teammates, urging them not to allow the loss to derail them. They were still the best team in the majors. They were still just two wins away. Regroup and move on. The Dodgers didn’t lose again.

Kershaw got the start the next day in the Dodgers’ 4-2 win in Game 5. Two days later, they pounced on Rays manager Kevin Cash’s puzzling decision to pull Blake Snell with a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. The Dodgers quickly scored two runs and added a third in the eighth inning on Betts’ home run. Urías was given the ball with two outs in the seventh inning and didn’t give it up until he blew a fastball by Willy Adames for the 27th out.

It wasn’t how the Dodgers imagined winning the World Series for the first time since 1988. They wore their home whites, but the deafening roars were missing and Turner’s positive test muted the party.

Dodgers players run toward pitcher Julio Urías after the final out of the World Series.
Dodgers players run toward pitcher Julio Urías after the final out of the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Alcohol was off limits at the ballpark. The Dodgers returned to the hotel not to celebrate but to undergo another round of coronavirus tests and head straight to their rooms, as ordered by Major League Baseball. There would be no customary championship parade. Players and coaches, the ones cleared to fly back to Los Angeles, quickly went to their offseason homes, if they could, upon landing. At least one late-night talk show appearance was done over FaceTime outside a sandwich shop on a drive to Arizona.

It was all so different, but, to the Dodgers, it didn’t matter. They’re finally World Series champions.

“This was our year,” Roberts said.

The Dodgers are World Series champions. Celebrate their historic season with “Blue Heaven,” a collector’s book chronicling their 2020 season.