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IF ONLY ALL SPORTS DRAMA MATCHED DODGERS-PADRES
As a disjointed NBA and other entities suffer ratings crashes, a thrilling first series in baseball’s new rivalry issued a reminder: Games must entertain to guarantee audiences in an evolving America
After midnight in L.A., when even the Jenners and Machine Gun Kelly are asleep, I realized why a ballgame had hijacked me as it cannonballed toward a sixth hour. It wasn’t about rivalry hype, a hopeful premise that the Dodgers — baseball’s corporate goliaths — suddenly are being challenged by a revived bottom-feeder in San Diego. It wasn’t the assembled starpower and affluence — the $365 million of Mookie Betts, the $300-million-plus deals of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado, Trevor Bauer’s $40 million a year, the batboys making six figures with comped hotel suites (kidding, I think).
It wasn’t even the startling element of raucous crowd noise, louder than 15,250 humans seem capable of generating in what surely was the decibels leader of sport’s pandemic era, Super Bowl and Wrestlemania included.
No, I was excited enough to keep watching because: (1) the players showed up for the weekend series, in uniform, even as Tatis, Machado and Betts have battled injuries; (2) they were excited to be at Petco Park, engaged in mid-April fury with the urgency of “a playoff game,’’ as Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said afterward; (3) not a soul was taking the evening off due to “rest’’ or a “minutes restriction’’ or “`load management’’ or while tending to a “personal matter’’ or a “mental day;’’ and (4) the Friday night game was friggin’ great — all four hours and 57 minutes of it, including an incident that emptied dugouts and bullpens — proving that the length of an extra-innings classic doesn’t matter when intensity and quality are next-level and both teams actually are trying to win a championship.
And what happened the next night? Another thriller, crisp and low-scoring, featuring more animosity — a God-fearing Clayton Kershaw, firing f-bombs at Jurickson Profar, who fired them back — and ending with Betts racing 60 feet, laying out his delicate body and saving the 2-0 victory by slamming into the grass and securing a liner in the heel of his glove, an inch or two from a trap. Imagine, a player of that pay grade risking his health so early in a season.
“``I just kind of blacked out,’’ said Betts, who celebrated by pounding his chest four times and shouting into the night. “I was kind of in the moment. I just knew when the ball went up, I had to catch it, and that’s what I did.’’
If this is an indirect way of upbraiding the NBA for its disjointed regular season, so be it. Certainly, Major League Baseball is overloaded with its own problems — COVID-19 outbreaks, tanking teams, sexual harassment probes in front offices, ball-doctoring by pitchers such as Bauer, an abysmal percentage of Black players on rosters (7.6 percent) and the darkening clouds of a labor impasse at season’s end. The Minnesota Twins are the latest team to require game cancellations after multiple positive virus tests, making fans think twice about attending games while reminding the sports world that a pandemic still rages. “This is the unfortunate reality that we live in,’’ Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. But at least MLB, after weeks of promising special drama in these Dodgers-Padres tussles — “`We’re going to get 19 World Series games this year,’’ the Dodgers’ Justin Turner said — delivered in the first of six series between teams separated by 120 miles of interstate highway.
I have no reason to trust the NBA and its careless competitive breaches. Unspoken tension between the players and commissioner Adam Silver, who insisted on starting a 72-game regular season only 71 days after last season ended, has resulted in an unwatchable mish-mash of athlete and franchise indifference, DNPs and suspicions that some stars aren’t injured as much as they’re being stashed away protectively for the playoffs. And those who are legitimately crippled — Denver’s Jamal Murray is out until next season with a torn ACL, ruining the Nuggets’ hopes — have every right to wonder if a short offseason increased the risk of serious injuries. After losing an estimated $2 billion in the Disney Bubble experiment, Silver saw financial advantages in a Christmas Week start, as encouraged by broadcast partners ESPN and Turner, while ending the postseason just before the Tokyo Olympics in late July.
The players aren’t happy, blaming the league for a spate of injuries both real and imagined. The Toronto Raptors, champions two years ago, are among those deeming “rest’’ as more important than a playoff berth — even in a season when there are 10 qualifiers in each conference. “There’s certainly ups and downs to this thing more than I’ve ever experienced in my life. To be honest, this is probably the most un-pure year of basketball I’ve ever been a part of, just from the whole league and rushing the season back,’’ the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet said. “It’s pretty much all about business this year on every level and it’s hard to hide it, you know what I’m saying? … I think this year, the industry side has taken precedence over some of the love and joy.”
What Silver didn’t anticipate was an aesthetic disaster, the antithesis of the Dodgers-Padres masterpieces. If you doubt this, consider NBA ratings have dropped again, to the point a TNT doubleheader last week drew only 724,000 viewers, or less than we used to attract on ESPN’s “Around The Horn’’ during our peak years. The best potential story in Silver’s kingdom is across the bridge, in Brooklyn, where the Nets might be the most potent offensive team ever. Too bad we’ve yet to see the starting core — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Joe Harris — play more than a handful of minutes together. Durant, of course, is returning from a career-threatening right Achilles’ tendon rupture. But it happened almost two years ago. Two months after an unrelated hamstring injury in his left leg, the Nets routinely keep him out of games as a precaution more than a necessity. Harden is out with a hamstring strain, but he’d surely be playing on it in the postseason. Irving? He comes and goes as he pleases, the most maddening free bird in sports, capable of calling in sick or wigging out on a whim. Somehow, Nets general manager Sean Marks is fine with the flim-flamness, which prioritizes playoff health over all else, continuity and chemistry be damned.
Anyone thinking about the fans in this equation? Last week, the NBA was poised for its potential version of a hot new rivalry: Nets vs. 76ers. ESPN was so juiced, it broadcast the game on its blowtorch feed and two other platforms, ESPN2 and ESPN+, which featured an all-gambling analytical focus for the first time. Hours before tipoff, the Nets announced Durant wouldn’t play, choosing to use him 27 minutes the previous night against the dismal Timberwolves to ensure at least one win in a back-to-back sequence. Across America, viewers flipped channels. The showcase game was a bust, producing numbers lower than AEW, pro wrestling’s junior-varsity brand.
“We want to get everyone healthy, and that’s just as important as circling the calendar for Philly,’’ Durant said.
“We’ve got to protect him,’’ coach Steve Nash said.
Ah, Nash. He was leading a comfortable life in Manhattan Beach as a soccer aficionado, an advisor to the Golden State Warriors and Canada’s Olympic team and a philanthropist who once was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Why did he take the Nets’ gig again? He has used 30 different starting units and is accustomed to games with 10 or fewer active players. Just when he was excited about acclimating big man LaMarcus Aldridge in the starting unit, the seven-time All-Star abruptly retired due to an irregular heartbeat. If that’s not random, how many times has Blake Griffin suited up compared to his frequent flannel-shirt sightings as a cheerleader?
‘‘We may not get any games with our whole roster. Nothing is promised tomorrow,” Nash said. “`I don’t want to worry about or be concerned about things that are out of our control. I also don’t want any excuses. You start playing that game where it’s like, well we haven’t had any games with our full roster. But in a sense, that’s irrelevant. We don’t control that.’’
Irrelevant? The Nets are a title contender, not a playoff aspirant. ‘‘`We just keep moving forward, keep trying to get better, and if we get a full roster that would be great and if we don’t we keep plugging away every day,’’ he said. ‘‘``I’m not going to worry about when we’ll have the full roster. We’ll just chip away every day with whoever is available. Continue to build this thing and if we’re fortunate to have everyone back, that will be a blessing.”
Nash won’t say it. I will: The Nets are exploiting their fans, and Marks is on board to avoid a player mutiny. Sunday, Durant was in the starting lineup for an ESPN game against the Heat, who didn’t have star Jimmy Butler, out with what was called a sore ankle. Durant launched an immediate scoring burst — eight points in the first 93 seconds — then was lightly fouled by Trevor Ariza in the hip area. What happened next? Durant walked to the locker room with a ``left thigh contusion’’ and didn’t return. Yet another hyped game was diluted, while NBA insiders asked: If Durant is this brittle, how are the Nets supposed to compete for a title? Or, is he simply a very good actor who’s distracted by his well-chronicled (and foolish) social-media wars?
“``He’s sore,’’ said Nash, ``but we don’t know how severe.’’
Don’t mistake this as a claim that LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Paul George and Donovan Mitchell haven’t been dealing with daunting setbacks. But I do wonder how many of these cases are being slow-played by teams focused entirely on the postseason, which means the final weeks of the regular season are being tanked by contenders. How can Silver, a self-described integrity enforcer, ignore rampant surrender throughout the league? He’s fortunate ticket-buyers still are kept at a minimum number, or he’d be sued for consumer fraud. He still might be.
This is no way to keep fans watching on TV or luring them to arenas as COVID restrictions ease. The pandemic has jarred many Americans into a pragmatic perspective: Who has time, money or energy for sports when the bigger objective is survival in a swirling, evolving world? As the industry is painfully aware, the ratings continue to crater for the biggest events — the Masters sunk to its lowest spring viewership numbers since 1993. This follows all-time lows for the NBA Finals and World Series and the lowest Super Bowl ratings since 2007. The NCAA tournament title game, which saw Baylor upend Gonzaga’s unbeaten season, was the least-watched since 1982. Don’t accept the easy explanation and assume it’s about cable cord-cutting. Or the premise that politics and anthem-kneeling have killed ratings.
Sports is entertainment.
And if the entertainment sucks, or is unreliable, people won’t watch. That goes for Netflix, the Oscars or the Brooklyn Nets. The NFL is the only league that has stood the test of COVID and continues to expect substantial traffic, which explains why CBS, NBC, ESPN/ABC, Fox and Amazon plunged $113 billion into 11-year deals. When the NBA leaks that it wants $75 billion in the next rights rush, when its current deal doesn’t expire for four more years, I would point to the Nets and other teams in the pattern of sitting players and ask if fans have lost measures of interest. The Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz, already missing Mitchell, rested Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley Jr. and Derrick Favors for ``injury recovery’’ purposes Saturday. Who wants to watch second-rate events? When fans return to games en masse, shouldn’t ticket and concession prices be slashed if roster dilution becomes business as usual?
The NBA playoffs, starting a month later than usual on May 22, could be a ratings bust if watchability standards don’t improve markedly. This is the summer Americans have awaited for a very long time — free of isolation, who wants to sit at home watching basketball when no one knows who’s injured or not? The play-in format, meanwhile, already has been torched by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and star Luka Doncic, who suddenly realize Dallas’ No. 7 seeding would require an additional three-game series against Steph Curry, Gregg Popovich or Zion Williamson. Said Doncic: “You play 72 games to get into the playoffs, then maybe you lose two in a row and you’re out of the playoffs. I don’t see the point.’’ Now that he mentions it, the fans might not see the point of tuning in.
I didn’t plan on watching more than an inning or two of Dodgers-Padres, Night One. The series seemed like a media creation that annoyed the World Series champions. “``It’s just another division series,’’ Corey Seager said.
“Obviously, we know they’re good,’’ Betts said of the Padres. “But everyone is good in the big leagues.’’
Was this a case of the inferior neighbor to the south, envious of all things L.A. and Hollywood, trying to manufacture a challenge? The Petco DJ played ‘‘Dust in the Wind’’ and ‘‘``Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’’ as the Dodgers took batting practice. Really? Hours later, after four late lead changes and 17 total pitchers, Seager finally reminded us of the Dodgers’ supremacy with a modern novelty — a leadoff, two-run homer. Yes, the new extra-inning rules were in play, with a runner starting the half-inning on second base, and wasn’t it a treat watching the Padres finally succumb by using second baseman Jake Cronenworth in emergency relief? He allowed an RBI sacrifice fly to weak-hitting pitcher David Price, who flew out to … Joe Musgrove, last week’s no-hit wonder, who’d been inserted in left field. Later, Cronenworth struck out Betts, who went down swinging on an 89-mph fastball.
“I wanted to maybe throw a little harder,’’ he told reporters, ``but they told me not to.’’
All we wanted was more. It was the best baseball game I’ve seen since March 11, 2020 — the start of the COVID calendar — and probably the best wire-to-wire sports event. Night Two came close, with Kershaw and Yu Darvish dueling as a ripple of the sport’s best two pitching staffs. Kershaw smelled a farce when Profar let strike three whiz by him, then intentionally swung late, wanting home-plate umpire Tom Hallion to think he was checking his swing. When his bat grazed the glove of catcher Austin Barnes, Profar remained at home plate.
‘‘That’s a (expletive) swing!’’ Kershaw shouted.
‘‘Shut the (expletive) up!’’ Profar replied.
Hallion, whose performance was wretched all night, somehow let the New York replay crew decide if Barnes committed catcher’s interference, as the Padres were claiming. Meanwhile, Kershaw was yelling and pointing his finger at Profar, who was standing on first base and had to be restrained by coach Wayne Kirby from attacking the regal pitcher. ‘‘That’s a little scary,’’ Kershaw said later. ‘‘Barnes could have been seriously injured on that play. He basically swung down and backwards. I’m not saying it was intentional, but that was not a big-league swing.’’
Profar was allowed to stay on first — the replay crew, oddly, agreed the catcher had interfered. But Kershaw, as usual, won in the end. With Darvish starting to wobble after retiring the first 14 batters, Kershaw came to bat with the bases loaded … and coaxed an eight-pitch walk that drove in the only run the Dodgers needed. ‘‘`I was just trying to be annoying, really,’’ Kershaw said. ‘‘I wasn’t going to get a hit off him. He has too good of stuff. I was just trying to be a nuisance to him, fouling off pitches.’’
The Padres avoided the sweep Sunday against Bauer, who allowed only a solo home run and two singles with seven strikeouts in six innings. The bullpen let him down, giving the Padres oxygen … until the rivalry resumes Thursday night in L.A. The Dodgers are 13-3, best start ever by a defending World Series champion. Playing in a division with three stragglers and a league with only a smattering of real contenders, why can’t they surpass the 116-win regular seasons of the 2001 Mariners and 1906 Cubs — and the 125 total wins of the 1998 Yankees? That team was the last to repeat as champs, part of a trifecta ending in 2000, and you sense the Dodgers, after years of falling short, are prepared to make the competition pay with a dynastic run.
‘‘When it’s time to make a play or a pitch, we do it,’’ said Betts, whose 12-year contract extends through the 2032 season. ‘‘`If we keep doing it, we’re going to be successful for a long time.’’
That they rose to match the passion of the moment, with autumn so far off, is a tribute to the organization. The Dodgers are the gold standard in American sports, having mastered modern business practices and analytics and meshing them with MLB financial might matched only by the Yankees. Jerry Jones has the most valuable sports franchise on Planet Earth, but the Dallas Cowboys haven’t reached a Super Bowl this century. The Yankees are second on the list, but they haven’t won the Series since 2009. This season, they are a toxic spill onto themselves, still struggling to beat the team they’ve subsidized in revenue sharing, the Tampa Bay Rays, as fans pelt the field with baseballs and turn the Stadium into a danger zone. The Dodgers are a colossus, the bluebloods who got it right, from the on-field product to a Chavez Ravine experience improved by a $100 million renovation of the outfield pavilion and beyond, including what team president Stan Kasten calls ‘‘an open-air baseball history museum.’’
Every beast needs an adversary. In a pop-culture context, the Dodgers are the triumphant Godzilla and the Padres are the quashed Kong. Neither the movie nor the first three World Series games, as Turner put it, let us down. ‘‘Neither team wanted to lose,’’ Price said after Night One. ‘‘``Everybody was playing extremely hard. This is a good rivalry, a fun rivalry to be a part of. Just a ton of really good players.”
‘‘``We knew it was going to be emotional and intense coming here,’’ manager Dave Roberts said after Night Two. ‘‘``It’s certainly lived up to the billing.’’
‘‘Really fun to watch,’’ Kershaw said.
By comparison, the NBA tankers remind me of Shaquille O’Neal in his TNT office chair last week, asleep as Dwyane Wade and Candace Parker lobbed grapes at him. They have five weeks to wake up.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘``the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.