The Turf Monster: How baseball became fun again

My relationship with baseball as a whole has been far from idyllic in recent months. Unlike football and basketball, whose reach and entertainment values as leagues allow me to follow them more holistically, baseball has always been more contingent on specific elements to yield a close following — the success of my favorite team and the ability to attend games in my favorite stadium.

The San Francisco Giants, one of the first sports teams I ever saw live and in person, have not given me a lot of reasons to be a dialed-in fan. They’ve ranged from bottom-feeder to mediocre in the past few years. But this is just an excuse. After all, baseball’s beauty comes in part because any day, any team, anywhere, can win. The lower-ranked Giants can still steal a game from the top-ranked Los Angeles Dodgers on any given afternoon.

However, baseball has slipped from my sports consciousness this year because of something more obvious: COVID-19. The hit on baseball from the pandemic was twofold for me. The first was the shortened, heavily modified season which barred fans from watching their beloved game in person. Baseball, more so than any other sport I have attended, is a game about the atmosphere. 

The game on the field merely sets the table for the treasure trove of food, fans and fun that occupies every corner of gorgeous stadiums like Oracle Park or Fenway. Memories of past experiences at Giants games are less about the final score and more about the rabid cheering, the transcendent crab sandwich I ate between innings or the gorgeous view of the bay in the summer heat.

If my interest in a sport, or anything for that matter, waned the instant COVID-19 took away the ability to experience that thing in person, I would live a very sad life today. But basketball and even football managed to muscle past that and deliver wildly entertaining seasons. With baseball, there was a constant sour taste in my mouth as I watched it. I couldn’t turn on a game without thinking about the bitter negotiations between the players’ association and team ownership, or the constant COVID-19 outbreaks that seemed to crop up on a weekly basis and force teams into endless doubleheaders to make up for it. Baseball in 2020 was tainted.

That is, until the World Series. 

Like in many years past, even without the presence of the Giants, I had something to root for: a World Series loss for the Dodgers. But what really took me over the top was how fun this World Series was. It was the purest form of sports, when the entertainment and storylines decouple it from any hang-ups that may have been held before. 

This series was back and forth, pitting the big-market Dodgers against the small-market Rays. Both teams brought wildly different styles to the table. The Dodgers had high-end talent propelled by a massive payroll that could beat teams in countless ways, casting them as the perfect villain. The Rays had a minuscule payroll, but were carried by savvy moves, lights-out pitching, hot-handed batters and analytics. They were the underdog heroes.

Final results aside, this series was some of the most fun I’ve had watching baseball in years. I think back to game four, when the Dodgers held a 2–1 lead in the series. They win, and the outcome is as good as buried. They lose, and it’s anyone’s series. The game was back and forth all night, with each inning seeing more and more runs as the bullpens of both sides hemorrhaged points.

That was, until the near-unknown Brett Phillips stepped up to the plate, runners on first and second already. His miraculous hit put the ball in play, which was then bobbled by the center fielder. One run scores. The centerfielder whips the ball to home plate. Randy Arozarena, arguably the hottest hitter on the planet, running towards home, trips and falls. The inning is destined to end in a tie. The catcher misses the catch, and Arozarena gleefully scrambles and dives towards home, capping off the comeback win. Pure joy across the Rays dugout ensues as the team takes off across the field to celebrate.

I cannot do this moment justice — please, go watch it online. You will not regret it. It made me forget the final outcome of the Dodgers taking the title 4–2. It reminded me that baseball is about the chaos, improbability and greatness that can come out of a single hit into right-center field.