ARLINGTON, Texas — In this oddest of years, this most peculiar of baseball seasons, there was perhaps no more telling snapshot of the United States, circa 2020, than a COVID-19-positive man sitting on the ground, maskless, next to a cancer survivor, maskless as well, with indelible grins spread across their faces. Sports is and always will be a metaphor for society.
The Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series on Tuesday night, and in the moments after, the world learned that Justin Turner, the team’s third baseman and pulse of the clubhouse, had contracted the coronavirus. Turner was asked to isolate. He did not abide. He strode onto the field, where his teammates were celebrating their 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 6, and joined. He removed his mask to pose for pictures with his wife, whom he kissed. He planted himself on the ground as the team gathered for a photo to commemorate the Dodgers’ first championship in 32 years. To his right sat Dave Roberts, the Dodgers’ manager, who 10 years ago was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma. To Turner’s left, gleaming, sat the World Series trophy.
The bizarre aspect of the scene was undeniable. The Dodgers had spent the past three weeks at a resort in Irving, Texas, about 20 minutes from Globe Life Field, ostensibly bubbled from the world. They were supposed to go from the hotel to the stadium and back and nowhere else. Security personnel roamed the property to ensure nobody ran afoul of protocols, whether players, coaches, front-office staff or the family members who had joined them. Nearly two months had passed without a player testing positive. Baseball, the sport that nearly shut down early in its season due to outbreaks on two teams, was on the verge of crowning a champion with no complications.
Then came the eighth inning, when Roberts removed Turner. It was curious; only once had Turner left a game this postseason before its conclusion, and that was in a blowout. The revelation of why turned a moment that would’ve been so undeniably joyous into something more complicated — a referendum on behaviors, choices, responsibility. On America and how its response to the pandemic, more than nine months after it landed on these shores, remains the most divisive question in the most divisive of times.
Justin Turner signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Feb. 6, 2014. For more than two months, he had sought a guaranteed deal after the New York Mets nontendered him — told him, essentially, he was not worth the money he would make in arbitration. He wound up signing a minor league deal with the Dodgers, made the team out of spring training and batted .340. He won the third-base job outright the next season and has made more than $50 million and an All-Star team since.
In those years, Turner had evolved from castoff to the emotional fulcrum of the megateam the Dodgers had spent years building. When they went down three games to one in the National League Championship Series, Turner was the player who sent the text message to his 27 teammates telling them: “This is the chance to do something special.” For all the brilliance of Clayton Kershaw, the future Hall of Fame starter whose playoff foibles long had vexed him, all the steadiness of Kenley Jansen, the closer whose regression had left the ninth inning no longer his, all the talent of World Series MVP Corey Seager and the indomitable Mookie Betts and ace Walker Buehler, Turner, his red beard a follicular metaphor for the fire with which he played, is the Dodgers’ conscience. To the Dodgers — to Los Angeles — a championship without him would not feel like a championship at all.
“He’s part of the team,” Betts said. “We’re not excluding him from anything.”
So out Turner went, to revel in what he’d done, what they’d done — how they’d avoided the embarrassment of the likely multiday postponement of Game 7 had they lost.
From the moment spring training started, the Dodgers were the favorites to win the World Series. On Feb. 11, two days before pitchers and catchers were due to report to spring training, they completed a trade for Betts, the star outfielder considered among baseball’s best players. The Dodgers had won NL West division titles the previous seven years. They had lost two World Series — the first, in 2017, in seven games to a Houston Astros team later sanctioned for a scheme in which they stole signs and relayed them in real time to batters, and the other, in 2018, to a Boston Red Sox team that Major League Baseball disciplined this year for its own illicit scheme the league deemed “far more limited in scope and impact” than the Astros’.
All of this gnawed at the Dodgers, Turner included. When commissioner Rob Manfred referred to the Commissioner’s Trophy, given to the World Series winner, as “a piece of metal,” Turner, already aggrieved that the league had given immunity to Astros players involved in the sign-stealing, hauled off.
“At this point, the only thing devaluing that trophy,” Turner said, “is that it says ‘Commissioner’ on it.”
Less than a month later, baseball shut down. At the sport’s highest levels, there was panic. As much as officials engaged with infectious-disease experts about this new virus, they could not know the unknowable. The coronavirus was, and still is, a mystery. And the idea of playing baseball in 2020 simply was not something they were willing to entertain, not as the pandemic roiled the country.
Before long, league officials started to map out potential plans. There was the season-long bubble idea, which never gained enough traction among players or owners. The league and players fought over money for nearly two months. MLB wanted to hold games at home, which allowed players to stay with their families but left them more susceptible to potential transmission. Manfred imposed a 60-game schedule. An abbreviated training camp, missed by dozens of COVID-positive players and personnel, culminated in a July 24 opening day. Two weeks into the season, after outbreaks on the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, baseball in 2020 was on the precipice of stopping — or ending — the season.
The fear among the Dodgers was palpable. This team they came into the season thinking was so good — it was. The hitting and the pitching. The young players and the old. The playoffs would be a crapshoot, but they always are. Never had this incarnation of the Dodgers, led by president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman in the front office, Roberts in the dugout, Turner and Betts and Kershaw in the clubhouse, believed in a group as much as they did this one.
The Dodgers would not fall prey to the same fates of the Marlins and Cardinals, not on Turner’s watch. On July 31, he texted Alanna Rizzo, who covers the Dodgers for their TV network, SportsNet LA, an iPhone note that outlined protocols the Dodgers would follow, lest any teammate dare incur his wrath.
“All players will wear face coverings in the dugout,” the first line read.
“Stressed 6 feet of distancing and face coverings in the bullpen where guys may have to sit in the stands to ensure space,” it continued.
“Also stressed avoiding public appearances for marketing,” it added.
And yet the Dodgers came to understand they were not immune from the complications of COVID-19 either, no matter their stringency. Jansen, who had undergone two surgeries to correct an irregular heartbeat, had contracted it before reporting to camp. The symptoms were brutal. And he hasn’t exactly felt right since.
“Recovering from COVID was tough,” Jansen told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne this week. “You still feel side effects once in a while. Your body feels — I don’t know, fighting it.”
All season long, in some circles of the game, there was a discomfort that baseball was even being played — that as the death toll from the coronavirus in the United States exceeded 200,000, baseball was Marie-Antoinette, the season its let-them-eat-cake moment. Others applauded Manfred’s damn-the-torpedoes approach, arguing that a year without baseball would be destructive to the sport, especially as the NBA and NHL finished their seasons in self-contained bubbles with nary a COVID-19 case.
Baseball, in many ways, was a microcosm of the country, of the balance that remains unstruck, of polarization. The league erred more on the side of those who see the pandemic as something scary. Masking was mandatory, socializing exceedingly discouraged. When two Cleveland Indians pitchers went out after a game in Chicago and were caught, they were demoted to the minor leagues. Even though the virus’ effects on strong, healthy, 20- and 30-something men rarely leads to complications, the players weren’t the only ones engaging in this real-time experiment. There were coaches, trainers, front-office staff — people in their 50s and 60s and 70s, with preexisting conditions, far more susceptible.
Whether it was the fear of the endangered season, better adherence to protocols or some combination therein, COVID-19 cases more or less vanished as baseball approached its playoffs. And nobody had been better than the Dodgers. They went 43-17 — a 116-win pace in a standard season. They outscored their opponents on average by more than two runs per game. Only four teams had ever done that, the last being the 1939 New York Yankees.
The Dodgers were a juggernaut. They had coalesced around Betts, who enjoyed being a Dodger so much he declined to test free agency this winter and signed a 12-year, $365 million contract extension on the eve of the season. They marveled at the resurgence of Seager, their beyond-talented 26-year-old shortstop who played in the field with a grace that belied his size and hunted bad pitches like a he’d summoned them with a duck call. Of the five pitchers in their starting rotation, the one with the lowest ERA was the most talented, Buehler, and stalking into a postseason with him and Kershaw and Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias felt unfair.
Only the Dodgers for years had assembled this juggernaut — with money, yes, a payroll funded by their outsize local-TV deal, the years of crowds packing Dodger Stadium, all the inherent advantages. But also with a process that worked. Friedman cut his teeth with the Rays, building them into a winner on a budget. His goal when he joined the Dodgers was far loftier. He wanted to build an unrelenting machine, one that embraced analytics and emphasized scouting, that drafted and developed better than anyone, that would not just open a window to win a championship but break the damn thing off its hinges.
For whatever weaknesses the Dodgers may have had — their bullpen depth, sort of, or Roberts’ decision-making, sometimes — their talent always seemed to paper it over. Even at 35 years old, with his contract expiring at the end of the season, Turner managed to hit .307, to get on base 40% of the time. He hit a first-inning home run in Game 6 of the NLCS that proved the winning run of a must-win game. He homered in the first inning of Game 3 of the World Series and again in Game 4. Just like the team photo he’d eventually take, Turner was in the middle of everything.
After being removed from the game because of a positive coronavirus test, Justin Turner joins his Dodgers teammates on the field to celebrate their championship.
On Monday, the Dodgers submitted the same COVID-19 spit tests that they have for months. During the season, the tests were administered every other day. Come the playoffs, the frequency increased to daily. The tests were shipped to the testing lab in Utah that MLB had retrofitted to serve as its nerve center for coronavirus testing. After some missteps early in the testing process that made GMs around baseball question the efficacy of MLB’s plan, the system wound up working out well enough to quell complaints. One GM, who had expressed significant skepticism about why the league was even bothering holding a season, said Tuesday morning: “MLB should be proud. It actually pulled this off.”
The exact time the Monday tests arrived in Utah, as well as when the lab ran them, is unclear. But one source with knowledge of the testing said the results, which typically have arrived before games are played, were delivered late. How this happened before a potential World Series clincher — and what it says about the league’s protocol — will be among the questions Manfred answers in the coming days.
In the second inning of Game 6, sources told ESPN, MLB received a call from the lab. One test had come up inconclusive: Turner’s. It showed some characteristics associated with a positive test, sources said, but the efforts to amplify the results by doctors running the tests did not say for certain. Inconclusive tests are relatively commonplace in coronavirus testing. There are no known cases of the league pulling players from games for inconclusive tests. When Cincinnati outfielder Nick Senzel tested positive for COVID-19, he was informed immediately and taken out of the team’s handshake line.
The tests taken on the day of Game 6 arrived around the same time as the inconclusive result. Rather than rerun it, the lab was told to fast-track the test Turner had taken Tuesday. The results would take two hours. In that time, the World Series would be won.
Blake Snell, the Rays’ starter, was poised to force a Game 7. He struck out Betts, Seager and Turner in the first inning, carved through the rest of the Dodgers’ lineup and again punched out their top three the second time through. Los Angeles was helpless against his array of pitches: a fastball that ticked up to 98 mph, a changeup he feathered on the outside corner to right-handers at 90 mph, a slider he spun with bad intentions at 89 mph and a curveball that buckled knees at 80 mph. Snell had won the American League Cy Young Award in 2018, and considering the opponent, the situation, the entirety of it all, he may have never looked better.
In the sixth inning, as Turner’s test spun, so did the Dodgers’ fortunes. The Rays live and die by their process, and they’d lived to the sixth game of the World Series adhering to the tenet that they don’t want batters to see a starting pitcher a third time. It is not hard and fast, but with one out in the sixth, with the Rays ahead 1-0 on a first-inning Randy Arozarena home run, with catcher Austin Barnes on first after a single, with Snell at 73 pitches, with two hits, no walks and nine strikeouts next to his name in the box score, Rays manager Kevin Cash emerged from the dugout. Snell unleashed an expletive. This was his game. This was their season.
Cash disagreed. He took the ball and handed it to Nick Anderson, their regular-season super-reliever whose postseason mortality had resulted in opponents scoring off him his last six outings. Betts smashed a double down the third-base line. A wild pitch scored Barnes. The Rays’ infield moved in. A Seager roller to first base was thrown home. Just as he had in Game 1, Betts slid headfirst and beat the throw. Six pitches after Snell exited, the Rays trailed 2-1.
An inning later, in the seventh, Turner’s results arrived. The Tuesday test said he was COVID-positive. The lab reached out to the league. The league reached out to the Dodgers. The Dodgers filtered word to the dugout. Roberts pulled Turner from the game before the eighth and inserted Edwin Rios.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says “he cannot speak” as to why Justin Turner was pulled from Game 6 of the World Series.
In the ninth, Roberts sat in the dugout with his legs crossed, calm and cool. Betts had homered in the bottom of the eighth and added an insurance run. Urias, who locked down the pennant with three scoreless innings to close Game 7, was primed to do the same in the World Series. Willy Adames stared at the final pitch, a 97 mph fastball that dotted the inside corner. Barnes stuck the ball in his back pocket as he ran to hug Urias. Kershaw materialized from the bullpen, arms in the air, look of joy across his face. Betts chucked his hat and ran to the dogpile.
This was it. This was what Los Angeles had waited for. This team, this time, this abnormal year producing a champion. And not a champion with an asterisk, because even though the season was short, everything it took — the discipline to follow protocols, the mental acuity to play games in front of no fans, the execution of it all amid the uncertainty — is more than worthy of the word.
How Justin Turner made it back onto the field to join his teammates is a question that was being asked around the sport early Wednesday morning, as the Dodgers rejoiced and the images of the scene spread quickly.
One general manager texted: “A superspreader event on live TV. Welcome to 2020.” A prominent player messaged: “what the f— is going on.”
The answer: Turner ignored the protocol that calls for COVID-positive players to isolate. He did this with the support of his teammates and the organization. Next to nobody had been as important to the Dodgers as Turner over the last seven seasons. They had spent time in the bubble with him, ridden the bus to the stadium with him, shared the clubhouse with him. He was their leader. And if it meant taking the risk of contracting the virus, if it meant stoking the ire of those watching, those were consequences they were willing to suffer.
Every day, living in America, living around the world, there are behaviors, choices, responsibility. Why did Justin Turner choose to do what he did — to flout Manfred, who told Fox after the game that Turner “was immediately isolated to prevent spread,” only for him to proceed to the field, to hold the Commissioner’s Trophy? Was it personal? Did Turner consider that he was the one who had emphasized the protocols when baseball was considering shutting down? Or was it something simpler, a behavior and a choice that overwhelmed whatever responsibility one might feel? That this was a moment he couldn’t miss, wouldn’t miss?
“Having a chance to take a picture with the trophy,” Friedman said, “was incredibly important and meaningful to him.”
Turner did not speak to the media after the game. He sent out a tweet, which said: “Thanks to everyone reaching out! I feel great, no symptoms at all. Just experienced every emotion you can possibly imagine. Can’t believe I couldn’t be out there to celebrate with my guys! So proud of this team & unbelievably happy for the City of LA #WorldSeriesChamps”
And eventually, once the coronavirus abates, once the world returns to normal, or whatever passes for normal, that will be the upshot of Oct. 27, 2020. It will be the day the Dodgers won the World Series again, the day they delivered ecstasy to a city and history for themselves.
For now, all of it is seen through the prism of Turner’s actions. Of the videos and the still photos. Of the hundreds of people on the field. Of the questions how, beyond the rapid testing the Dodgers planned to receive upon their return to the hotel, they’ll handle the coming days. Of whether Turner was being wildly irresponsible or just reaping what he earned. And we’ll argue because all we do is argue, fight, bicker, snipe, and it’ll wind up where it always does, sides divided, each convinced that it’s correct, America’s pastime indeed.