How baseball made it through its best, worst, smartest, dumbest and scariest season ever


The weirdest, strangest, wackiest, smartest, stupidest, best, worst season in baseball history is finally over — and it’s not clear if we should be happy or sad. Major League Baseball brought us so much pleasure, but also such a large measure of pain.

So all we can hope, for so many reasons well beyond the great game of baseball, is that we never have to go through this again.

It was a great season because, miraculously, it was completed. It started with Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto testing positive for COVID-19 a few hours before the season opener, and it ended with Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner being removed in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the World Series because of a positive test for the coronavirus. In between, in late July, the Miami Marlins had an outbreak. Soon after, so did the St. Louis Cardinals. It nearly destroyed their seasons — and the seasons of every team.

Yet the industry of baseball, especially the players, showed great discipline in following health and safety protocols, allowing the game to reach late October in one piece. We arrived there in part because of “the bubble,” seven-inning doubleheaders, placing a runner at second to start the 10th inning of a tie game and employing a universal designated hitter.

It was a different game — some loved it, others didn’t. We did all set career records for times using the word “truncated.”

It was a great season because of the team storylines. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series for the first time since 1988, and they came back to win from a 3-1 deficit (against the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series) for the first time in franchise history.

They came back from one of the worst losses in World Series annals, that magical Game 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Clayton Kershaw had an exceptional World Series (though not quite as good as Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, the series MVP), ending the ridiculous narrative that he doesn’t have the stomach for a big game. He has pitched in 11 postseason elimination games, six as a starter, and has more strikeouts (207) than any pitcher in postseason history.

The Rays, with the third-lowest payroll in the majors, made it to the World Series despite not having one pitcher quality for the ERA title (60 innings), in the regular season, and in the postseason, having a run differential of minus-2, and going 19-for-103 runners in scoring position.

The Rays don’t have the best players, but they play the game better than any team in an era when some teams don’t play the game very well. And even in losing the World Series, Tampa shined with its toughness, talent and tenacity, never clearer than how it somehow came back to win that unforgettable Game 4.

The Marlins made the playoffs — and won a series — despite their coronavirus outbreak. They used nine starting pitchers and 27 different pitchers in the first nine games of the season; they used 61 players in 60 games; they made 23 roster moves in one day. Manager Don Mattingly said it was a “slight exaggeration” that he met some of his players for the first time when he went to the mound to make a pitching change, but said he had “no idea what to expect” from five of his players because he’d never seen them play.

It was a great season because of the player storylines. Rays infielder Mike Brosseau acknowledged that he “wasn’t a great player in high school.” He was an undrafted free agent who, through perseverance, made it to the big leagues. Then, in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, he hit a go-ahead home run against a pitcher — Aroldis Chapman — who had nearly taken his head off with a pitch six weeks earlier. Rays teammate Kevin Kiermaier said of Brosseau: “I love that guy. And [Rays catcher] Mike Zunino called that homer. He said it would be the greatest moment in the history of the planet.”

Rays rookie outfielder Randy Arozarena defected from Cuba at age 20, spending eight hours in a small boat. He played in Mexico, then signed with the Cardinals. Still, he was considered to be an afterthought (though not by the Rays) in a trade in January. Then Arozarena set a record for most home runs (10) and most hits (29) in any postseason, prompting songful chants of “Hey, Arozarena.”



Jeff Passan rewrites the ’90s hit “Macarena” centered on Rays breakout star Randy Arozarena.

His story can only happen in baseball. In basketball, no player comes out of the G League, leads his team in scoring and takes it to the NBA Finals.

It was a great season because the games, despite many imperfections, were great. And there were so many of them: 54 playoff games in all.

On Sept. 30, there were eight playoff games, which I jokingly called “the greatest day of my whole life,” which actually caused a few people to wonder aloud how I could place a day of playoff baseball over the birth of our two children. I was kidding!

We had the great Game 2 of the Padres-Cardinals wild-card series, when San Diego, on the verge of being eliminated, overcame a four-run deficit and became the first team to hit five home runs after the sixth inning of a postseason game, including a memorable blast (and bat flip) by shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.

We had the 2-1 victory by the Rays over the Yankees (Brosseau’s home run) in Game 5 of the ALDS. We had two Game 7s in the LCS, the first time that has happened since 2004. The Houston Astros became the second team ever to force a Game 7 after going down 3-0 in a series. And Game 7 of the NLCS, a 4-3 victory by the Dodgers over the Braves, was an October classic that Cody Bellinger won with a home run in the seventh inning.

And, of course, Game 4 of the World Series was marvelous, with the wildest ending to any World Series game in history. It was the first World Series game to feature three lead changes from the sixth inning on. The final one came when the Rays’ Brett Phillips, in his third career at-bat in the postseason, got his first hit, a single that tied the score, giving him his second RBI since July 27. On the play, the Dodgers became the first team in World Series history to make two errors (by center fielder Chris Taylor and catcher Will Smith) on a play that resulted in a walk-off loss, allowing Arozarena, who fell rounding third, to score.

“That last play,” said the Rays’ Brandon Lowe, “I lost 10 years off my life.”

It was a great season because we got a better look at the curveball of Astros left-hander Framber Valdez. We got our first good look at the Braves’ Ian Anderson, who joined Christy Mathewson (1905) as the only pitchers not to allow a run in their first three postseason starts. Anderson became the first rookie pitcher in the history of the Braves (that’s Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta) to win a postseason start. Then fellow rookies Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson became the second and the third.

We saw a 458-foot homer by the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton; they must have measured that one from second base. We saw a 487-foot blast by the White Sox’s Luis Robert. We saw brilliant defense, especially from Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts. We also saw it from the infield of the Rays.

We had Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner wearing a microphone in a playoff game, during which he said teammate A.J. Pollock occasionally picked up foul balls down the left-field line and then fired them at cutout figures in the stands, a game they called “Down The Clown.”

It was a great season because in the NLCS, Dodgers catcher Will Smith homered off Braves reliever Will Smith. In Game 3 of the World Series, to the delight of fans of “The Andy Griffith Show,” Ryan Sherriff faced Chris Taylor for the first Sherriff-Taylor at-bat.

We spent time with Astros manager Dusty Baker, who lamented that COVID-19, among other things, kept him from going out to dinner on the road.

“I’d look in my wallet,” Dusty said, “and think, ‘Hey, this is the same money I had in here yesterday.'”

When asked by a young reporter about the power of Baker’s diminutive second baseman, Jose Altuve, Dusty compared Altuve to Mighty Mouse, then realized that the reporter likely had no idea who Mighty Mouse was.

“Google Mighty Mouse,” Baker said, “He was a bad dude.”

And yet despite all that greatness, it still felt different all season, right to the end. It just wasn’t the same without a dog pile on the pitcher’s mound after the final out, without 50,000 fans shaking the home ballpark, without champagne soaking everyone in sight. There will forever be an imaginary asterisk next to the 2020 season but it is absurd to, in any way, invalidate the championship by the Dodgers, who went 56-22 in the regular season and postseason and were clearly the best in the game from the pitch of the season to the last.

October was tremendous, but it was mildly uncomfortable that two teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Astros, made the playoffs with sub-.500 records, doubling the number of sub-.500 teams to make the playoffs in baseball history. The Brewers didn’t spend a day above .500 all season. They hit .223 as a team, which would have been the lowest team batting average ever by a playoff team except that two other teams this year, the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs, had lower batting averages.

Indeed, the five lowest batting averages by teams ever to make the playoffs all came this season.

But only the Reds finished the season with more walks than singles, a first in history. They didn’t score a run in 22 innings in the postseason.

The condensed schedule and expanded roster lessened even more the value of starting pitchers and increased bullpen use, which might not be a great idea. In the postseason, 466 1/3 innings were thrown by starters, 468 2/3 innings were thrown by relievers, a troublesome trend in the sport that was never more evident than in Game 6 of the World Series when the Rays pulled starter Blake Snell after 73 pitches — even though he had struck out nine of the 18 hitters he faced and had allowed just one hard-hit ball.

And there is this: On Oct. 2 against the Cardinals, the Padres became the first team ever — regular season or postseason — to throw a nine-inning shutout while using nine pitchers.

In their six playoff games, the Padres used eight, nine, nine, nine, five and 11 pitchers. That’s 51 pitchers, by far the most used in any six-game stretch in history. In Game 5, a potential clincher in the NLCS, the Braves started A.J. Minter, who hadn’t started a game since college; he had never gotten six outs in any outing in his four-year major league career. And then he became the first pitcher in postseason history to strike out seven in an appearance of three innings. In Game 2 and Game 6 of the World Series, the Dodgers, despite their great depth of starting pitching, employed a bullpen game; starter Tony Gonsolin was asked to face only six hitters.

Bob Gibson would not have approved. That brings us to the worst part of baseball in 2020; we lost Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan. For baseball fans my age (63), they were our childhood. They were our baseball heroes. They showed us how to play the game. After Morgan died, Hall of Fame catcher and former teammate Johnny Bench asked, “How much more gut-wrenching can this get?”

It was a difficult season because Cleveland Indians manager Tito Francona, who makes us laugh and smile, missed 48 games, including the postseason, due to illness.

Altuve briefly got the yips; he made four throwing errors in one series after not making a throwing error all season. There were too many homers and too many strikeouts. At one point in the LCS round, the home run rate (15.5%) was the same as Willie McCovey’s career home run rate, and the strikeout rate (23%) was the same as Roger Clemens’ career strikeout rate.



Jeff Passan explains how Justin Turner made his way back to the field after being pulled midgame for a positive COVID-19 test.

The Braves and Reds, in the wild-card round, set a record for strikeouts (37) in a postseason game. It was also the first postseason game to be scoreless through 12 innings.

There was some atrocious baserunning in the postseason, including in Game 7 of the NLCS when the Braves, with runners on second and third and no one out against the Dodgers, somehow ran themselves into a double play on a ground ball, the first time any team had done that in that situation since the New York Mets in July 2019. But those Mets weren’t one victory away from going to the World Series for the first time since 1999.

Selfishly, it was a difficult season for me because I missed my first World Series game since 1981. I watched all the postseason games from Conference Room 8/1-113, next to the ESPN cafeteria. I watched with teammates from Baseball Tonight — Karl Ravech and Mark Teixeira. It was great fun, but it wasn’t the same as actually being at the World Series.

Nothing was the same this season. Nothing was easy this year. Everything was exhausting. Still, we should all be thankful that the season was completed with a memorable October. But please, in 2021, grant us better health, 162 games, fans in the stands, all nine-inning games, no runner placed at second in the 10th inning, no bubble in October and a seat in a rocking home ballpark, not the ESPN cafeteria, for the World Series.

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