For the last several years after the Dodgers would win their first game of the season, I would turn to anyone who'd listen, usually Jen or maybe my parents via the phone, and proclaim, "This is the year!"
It was always meant as a joke, but deep down I wondered if one of these years I'd ever be right.
Well, the moment I wondered if I'd ever see again took place on October 27, 2020, at 8:37 p.m., when Julio Urias struck out Willy Adames to secure a 3-1 victory in Game 6 to clinch the World Series for my beloved Dodgers.
It was the first World Series championship for the Dodgers since 1988, when I was 11 years old and in sixth grade. Because baseball is so meticulous in its record keeping, I was able to calculate precisely how long ago it had been.
Yes, it was 32 years ago. But the time in between Orel Hershiser striking out Tony Phillips in Game 5 to clinch the 1988 title, and Urias slamming the door on this year's Series?
Exactly 11,695 days... and 11 minutes.
In that time, I went to and graduated from prep school, went to and graduated from college, started my journalism career, got married, moved to New York, had two sons, moved to D.C., bought our first house, moved to Seattle, bought our second home, saw my sons become teenagers, watched my father retire from his job after 44 years, turned 40, left the journalism industry, moved to Portland, saw an aunt die, voted in six presidential elections, and lived through a global pandemic.
In short, it had been a while.
When it comes to the Dodgers and me, there was no other way it could've gone. I was born in East L.A., and the house I grew up in, and in which my parents still live, sits five miles from Dodger Stadium. The family that raised me (my mother, father, and two aunts) all fell hard for the Dodgers after emigrating to the U.S. from Mexico. Even before Fernandomania blew up in 1981, they had already lived and died with the Dodgers during the 1977 and 1978 World Series, both losses to the Yankees. My father still curses Reggie Jackson's name.
That 1981 season, more than even 1988, is the common bond for my parents and aunts, and myself. One of my aunts was easily the biggest Fernandomaniac of the family, saving and cutting out all the newspaper clippings she could get her hands on, while also having a big crush on Dusty Baker. My other aunt used to get ulcers over the Astros teams that featured Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz. My mom and dad loved the steadiness of the Ron Cey/Bill Russell/Davey Lopes/Steve Garvey infield, and appreciated the stalwart starting pitching the team had with Jerry Reuss, Burt Hooton and, of course, Fernando Valenzuela.
Tons of stories have been written over the years, and there was a tremendous documentary produced about it, but the cultural significance of Fernandomania cannot be overstated. Though my family already rooted for the Dodgers, the floodgates opened when Fernando established himself immediately like he did in 1981. The legacy of that is unquestioned, as close to half of the Dodger fanbase now identifies as Latino.
Because I was 4 years old in 1981, I only remember slivers of moments. I remember my mom and aunts going crazy in the living room of our house when the Dodgers pulled ahead in the "Blue Monday" game that clinched the pennant that year against Montreal. I also remember my mom taking me to the victory parade after the Dodgers won the World Series. I recall my mom holding me in one arm while she reached out with her other arm to the float with the players to shake one of their hands.
The 1981 Dodgers, with Fernandomania and a stirring run to the championship, were unquestionably the forever team for my parents and aunts. That whole era made them fans for life. And as a result, the seeds were planted in me.
Like I said, it could really go no other way.
I really do think them raising me to be a Dodger fan was well-intentioned. The team was competitive and fun to watch. And it was a constant that would always be there, year in and year out, providing something to look forward to, and eventually, to commiserate about, no matter where I was living or what I was doing.
The first crushing playoff disappointment that I recall vividly was the 1985 NLCS against the Cardinals. Jack Clark hit a three-run home run with first base open in Game 6 to secure the pennant at Dodger Stadium. It was a day game, and I got home from school (I was in third grade) just in time to see the ninth inning. I cried.
After two subpar seasons, the magical run of 1988 happened. Fernando dealt with lots of injuries and was eventually left off the playoff roster that year, but Orel Hershiser emerged as the star who carried the team to the title. There was also a dash of magic thanks to Kirk Gibson's heroic home run in Game 1 of the World Series, easily the greatest childhood sports memory I have. I watched the final game on a TV in my parents' bedroom while they hosted a bunch of friends in the living room for a watch party. I quietly jumped off my parents' bed and raised my arms triumphantly as the celebration began. Little did I know how long it would be till the next one...
After 1988, there wasn't tons and tons to cheer about. The Dodgers even went 20 years with one solitary playoff victory (thank you, Lima Time, 2004). Sometimes I wondered if we burned all of our good karma on the 1988 championship, but in reality you can never underestimate the level of incompetency teams fall under sometimes (thank you for nothing, McCourts). But you kept rooting, and hoping that this year would be different, and during the phone calls home, the Dodgers were always a standing item to talk about. When I'd visit L.A., if it was baseball season, I always made sure to get a game or two in.
At some point, probably when the Dodgers reached the NLCS in 2008, I started thinking: I just want to see the Dodgers play in a World Series again. Obviously, I wanted them to go all the way, but it would be fun to have them be one of the last two teams standing. And preferably, I'd love to see it before my family got too much older, so I could enjoy it with them.
Even with new ownership in 2012, and the emergence of pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the waiting continued. The Dodgers fell two wins short of the World Series in 2013 against the Cardinals (there's that team again!), and then got knocked out in the first round by the Cardinals in 2014 when Kershaw stayed in too long and gave up a three-run home run late in the game (the Jack Clark PTSD bubbled up pretty strongly that day).
The Dodgers continued to make the playoffs, offering more chances to hope but also providing more chances at disappointment and frustration. It didn't help that they would keep losing to the eventual world champion from 2016-2019 (and the eventual National League champion, in the case of the 2015 Mets). One more hit, one more out, one more decision, and would the narrative have been different?
Speaking specifically about the 2017 World Series against the Astros, I'll just say this: even before the sweet relief of this week, I had pledged to not dwell on it. Though I'll always wonder about Game 5 of that series because of how dramatically Kershaw melted down, the Dodgers lost two games at home, including a gut punch of a Game 7. So I choose not to stew about it. Whatever happened, the principals involved have to live with it and I don't need to pile on.
My father, whenever the Dodgers would inevitably end their season in disappointment in recent years, would always wonder why they couldn't be like THOSE teams that he fell in love with 40 years earlier. Never mind that, like this current era of Dodger squads, those old teams lost back-to-back World Series and had other crushing disappointments before finally breaking through in 1981. Funny how a championship changes your perception of a team. I'm happily learning that this week.
In fact, I sketched this out recently, and it was eerie some of the similarities I noticed in the eight-season stretch of Dodger baseball between 1974-1981 and the one from 2013-2020.
Just to rattle off a few:
- My parents' teams featured two managers (Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda), just like this current run (Don Mattingly, Dave Roberts).
- The old teams won four pennants and one World Series title, this current run features three pennants and one World Series title.
- Both teams won World Series championships under unusual circumstances -- the 1981 team winning during a strike-interrupted season, the 2020 team winning during a pandemic that required a postseason played at a neutral site with little to no fans in the stands.
- The clinching game of the World Series for each team featured a young left-hander closing it out with a multiple-inning outing in a Game 6 -- Steve Howe pitching 3.2 innings to beat the Yankees in 1981, and Urias going 2.1 innings to finish off the Rays in 2020.
It's not an exact comparison, to be sure. Comparing eras in baseball is never a clean exercise. And it's pretty apparent that this current group -- with its young core of star players like right fielder Mookie Betts, shortstop Corey Seager, center fielder Cody Bellinger and pitcher Walker Buehler -- is well-positioned to contend for a while, whereas the team that won in 1981 was at the end of its run. The Dodgers missed the playoffs in 1982, and Lopes was the first key player to be jettisoned before that season, with Garvey and Cey leaving before the 1983 season.
But it is a fun coincidence that I now have a version of a Dodgers World Series title that puts an exclamation point to an era and ends a long dry spell (the 1981 team ended a 16-year title drought).
I also love how culturally significant this 2020 team is, a team truly of its city and of its time but with a natural and easy connection to the franchise's proud history. Having a superstar the caliber of Betts and a manager like Dave Roberts feels right for the team of Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. And having Urias and fellow Mexican pitcher Victor Gonzalez emerge as playoff stalwarts for a team with such a significant Latino fanbase, I can't think of a better legacy for Fernandomania.
Which brings me back to my aunt who was the big Fernando fanatic. She died in the summer of 2018, so unfortunately, her last big memories of the Dodgers involve the 2017 World Series against Houston.
After Urias was one of the many Game 7 heroes in the NLCS with three perfect innings against the Braves to clinch it, I thought how much my tia Cira would have loved seeing Urias pitch. To that point, he was 4-0 in the playoffs with a microscopic earned run average.
So when it was apparent in Game 6 of the World Series that this game belonged to Urias and he was being tasked with ending it, I made sure to grab a picture of my aunt so that I could hold it and have her there in spirit. And when Urias finished the job, I cried.
This time, they were tears of joy and relief.
There was also a tinge of sadness, because I would have loved for my aunt to see it. But the rest of my family saw it and savored it. And it's a good thing, too -- my father turns 70 next week, my mother turned 72 in September and my aunt celebrated her 79th birthday in March.
And ultimately, that's where this is all rooted: familia.
Yes, it's absolutely wonderful to no longer have to say, "the Dodgers haven't won the World Series since 1988." But it's absurdly thrilling to share one more Dodger championship with my family, these well-intentioned fanatics who introduced me to this sport and this team. And to have it come with a flourish in the form of Urias and Gonzalez, and to have it take place in a year where we didn't even think we'd play baseball, it's beyond my wildest dreams.
And for all that, I am grateful that this really was the year.