The last time the Boston Red Sox and L.A. Dodgers (or an iteration thereof) met in the World Series, Babe Ruth pitched Game 2.
If you’re one of those people who believe things tended to be better in ye olden days, this was the proof.
The game lasted 14 innings – still a championship series record. Ruth pitched every one of them, allowing only one run and getting the win. Despite containing nearly two regulation games in one, the whole thing wrapped up in just more than two-and-a-half hours.
You know what Major League Baseball needs? It isn’t rule changes, more marketable faces or a fresh hook into popular culture. It’s a time machine.
That perfect baseball (if not world) moment in 1916 – famous names, afternoon games and a hegemonic hold on the U.S. imagination – was also perfect for the Red Sox. They were at the height of their powers. Then they sold Ruth to the Yankees and you know how that went.
The Dodgers would have to wait a few years before they hit their peak. And I’m not talking about winning trophies. The Dodgers rewrote their own creation myth by leaving Brooklyn in 1958 – simultaneously making the club the most pined over and most American team in history. They were the one who picked up sticks and struck out west.
So while there is no real rivalry to drive up interest in this year’s World Series matchup, there are two contrasting visions of how baseball represents America.
Boston is the old world with all its Hobbesian hang-ups. It is hard-scrabble, perpetually disappointed and, despite all its wealth and success, continues to see itself as the poor, country cousins being looked down upon by its relations in New York. A good thing is just the prelude to the bad thing coming around the corner.
If that doesn’t make any sense (and it doesn’t), it’s probably because you didn’t grow up Irish.
The Dodgers are settled, mid-century America. They are all cheerful self-confidence and possibility. If they aren’t good now, they’re pretty sure they can be really good tomorrow, just by wishing it so. When they are really good, they take it for granted.
The feeling was captured by L.A.’s afternoon play-in game to reach these playoffs. This was do-or-die stuff. A lot of big cities would have suspended operations for the day. Not Los Angeles.
At first pitch, Dodger Stadium was perhaps half full. The upper decks never really thickened with people. The Dodgers have made the postseason eight of the past 11 seasons.
Los Angeles doesn’t worry too much about this year because there’s always next year – and, man, next year is going to be so great.
The Boston roster is full of legends-in-the-making, but the most Red Sox-y among them is Game 1 starter Chris Sale. The club has a long history of creating unremittingly irritated superstars – Ted Williams, Jim Rice, Roger Clemens, et al.
Sale is that sort – preposterously gifted, stubbornly unwilling to take much joy in the fact, all coupled with a perverse sense of humour. He once showed his unhappiness at having to wear a throwback jersey by cutting up a locker room’s worth of them with a pair of scissors.
Earlier in this postseason, Sale was asked if he could “talk about” his success pitching against New York.
Sale’s answer: “No.”
He was taken sick near the end of the Houston series and briefly hospitalized with what was described as a stomach ailment. Sale then explained that he’d gotten an infection from a belly-button ring.
“Just constantly taking it in and out, causing irritation and got a rash down there,” Sale said.
Sale may be from Florida, but he is about as likely to have a safety pin through his nose as a belly-button ring. Still, some people bought it.
Sale’s L.A. through-a-glass-brightly doppelganger is the Dodgers’ Game 1 starter, Clayton Kershaw.
Just looking at Kershaw – arguably the most dominant pitcher of his generation – the phrase “golly gee willikers” pops into mind.
He’s played his whole career with one team. Although capable of anger at his own performance, he’s never tilted a boat, never mind rocked one. He is both baseball’s brightest hope and its problem – a generational star who, in terms of Q factor, is more Clark Kent than Superman.
What the two men share is that eerie sense of purpose particular to the elite class of pitchers.
On Sunday night, Kershaw was out in the Fenway Park bullpen going through his routines, minus the actual throwing the ball part. He could have done this in the tunnels, where it’s warmer. But, clearly, he wanted to be seen working.
That’s what getting to the final stage in baseball comes down to – work. Of course, talent will out, but baseball rewards consistent industry more than any other sport. A good club can grind its way to greatness.
These two teams have been at it just about every day for eight months. Between spring training, the regular season and the playoffs, they’ll have played about 200 games.
For the Red Sox, this is a beginning. Their core is young. Their stars are secured. They could regularly find themselves in this position for the next five or seven years – a little like the Dodgers have just done.
For the Dodgers, this is more of the same. They also have great young players. There is no hump to get over in L.A. They’ve won enough that they don’t feel like the “time is now” or whatever fringe-y, underfunded teams say to themselves when they get in this spot.
The Dodgers are 30 years removed from their most recent title, but they exude no panic. The franchise may be unique in that regard.
As such, this is the first modern meeting between two storied franchises who regard themselves as the class of the sport. Neither expects that to change any time soon.