Justin Turner vs. COVID and Blake Snell vs. analytics highlight the end of a memorable World Series | Mike Sielski
What Turner did was indefensible. What Cash did was, too. And do we really want to drain the drama from baseball?
Baseball ceased to be boring, at least for a night, on Tuesday, with the Dodgers' 3-1 clinching victory over the Rays in Game 6 of the World Series. It was exasperating, infuriating, controversial, and at times breathtaking. A few thoughts on its most memorable moments and decisions ...
A Dodger’s error
It is natural that third baseman Justin Turner would want to celebrate the Dodgers' championship – the franchise’s first since 1988 – with his manager and coaches and teammates. It would have been understandable if Turner, had he been on the field when Julio Urias struck out Willy Adames for the Series' final out, had joined the pile of Dodgers jumping up and down and wrapping their arms around each other. It would have been unselfish, maybe even noble, if Turner had taken care to don a mask during the celebration, knowing, as he does, that Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had suffered from Hodgkin lymphoma years ago, which makes Roberts more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus.
What is indefensible, though, is that Turner – after having learned during Game 6 that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, after Roberts and the Dodgers had removed him from the game and, according to Major League Baseball’s pandemic protocols, ordered him to isolate himself – returned to the field, without a mask, and began interacting with people, hugging teammates, and kissing his wife. More, when MLB security told Turner that he had to leave the field, he refused.
Everyone recognizes by now, or should recognize by now, that living through the pandemic, that establishing and maintaining any sense of normalcy at all during the pandemic, is a matter of trade-offs. You want to keep schools closed and have students learn virtually until there’s a vaccine? OK. Just be open-eyed and realistic about how much damage to children’s mental and emotional health you’ll tolerate. You want businesses to stay shuttered? Then you’d better provide entrepreneurs with some long-term financial assistance, and you’d better weigh that measure of safety against an economic collapse. How you fall on those questions might be a matter of the available evidence, or it might be a matter of your own individual sensibilities and priorities.
All of those trade-offs, however, are predicated on one truth: Few of us are encountering people who we know have tested positive for the virus. So everyone assesses his or her own level of risk accordingly and takes the appropriate preventative measures. That calculus would change completely if you knew that you were about to come in contact with someone who is a carrier. Put it this way: Let’s say you have to drive to the supermarket, and you have to pass through a four-way stop to get there. If you knew ahead of time that another driver would run that stop sign at some point during your trip to the store – maybe while you’re crossing the intersection, maybe not – how willing would you be to run that errand?
Turner was that other driver. “I feel great, no symptoms at all,” he posted on Twitter early Wednesday morning. “Just experienced every emotion you can possibly imagine.” Sorry, Justin. The timing of the news was terrible, for sure. But once that test came up positive, it wasn’t about you anymore.
What might have been
The debate, such as it is, over whether Rays manager Kevin Cash should have removed starting pitcher Blake Snell from Game 6 has been framed almost exclusively as an inflection point in baseball’s ongoing war between analytics and eyeballs. Snell had dominated the Dodgers through 5⅓ innings, striking out nine, throwing just 73 pitches, having just allowed his second hit when Cash yanked him. Nick Anderson went in, the Dodgers took the lead, and a thousand First Take segments were born.
It’s fun to bat around the question of whether, from a purely strategic standpoint, Cash should have left Snell in the game. Cash’s decision, really, is like a lot of managerial decisions: Its intelligence or stupidity is based mostly on its outcome. In this case, yes, a tired Snell was probably a better option than a fresh Anderson (whom opposing hitters had hammered throughout the postseason). But if Cash had gone to another reliever, who then retired the next two Los Angeles hitters, it would have been harder for naysayers to nitpick. Or for nitpickers to naysay.
Beyond the reasoning behind Cash’s move, though, there was another reason to dislike it. One of the most entertaining aspects of sports is the opportunity to watch an athlete push himself or herself up to and past his or her physical limits, especially in the most important moments of a game or a season. That’s why, for instance, the most resonant moment from the Dodgers' 1988 World Series victory isn’t Orel Hershiser’s recording the final out in Game 5; it’s Kirk Gibson’s two-run home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1. Why? Because Gibson was injured and could barely walk, and no one thought he would play that night, and still he rocketed a ball over the right-field wall, with two outs in the ninth inning and his team down by a run, off the best closer in the game.
No, Snell had not thrown more than 5⅔ innings in any of his regular-season or postseason starts this year. Guess what? That recent history made it all the more thrilling to see if he could continue mowing down the Dodgers in Game 6. The more that major-league front offices and managers insist on making the safe, defensible decision driven solely by data, the more drama they’ll drain from the sport.
Right way to build
All that said, Cash and the Rays did come within two victories of a championship, reaffirming that it’s better to be the franchise that can find Randy Arozarena than it is to be the franchise that can sign Bryce Harper.