Red Sox vs. Dodgers: A World Series clash with historic possibilities

ByBradford Doolittle ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

BOSTON -- The 114th World Series is upon us, and if you can stick your personal team proclivities in the vault for a moment, you have to admit that the Red Sox-Dodgers pairing has all the ingredients of a great matchup.

For your consideration: Despite all the talk of how these markets have never clashed in the Fall Classic, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox did play each other in front of the biggest audience ever to witness a baseball game. That happened on March 29, 2008, and as you might guess from that date, it was an exhibition. But what an exhibition. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles, they played Boston at the Los Angeles Coliseum. There were 115,300 fans on hand.

That was an exhibition. Can you imagine the furor that will erupt over a tense and -- yeah, we'll say it -- contentious World Series? This could be the emergent rivalry that baseball needs. The next 10 days will decide whether we've started down that path.

"You got two of the best organizations in all of sports playing against each other," said Manny Machado, the Dodgers shortstop who isn't exactly beloved by the Fenway faithful. "The cities have the history with basketball, but that was a little bit before my time. You have two great teams that played their butts off this year to get to the World Series. It's definitely going to be a good one."

Boston and Los Angeles have enjoyed parallel existences as flagship franchises for 60 years now. There is some connective tissue, personalities who have worked for both franchises. No one has hit 100 homers for both franchises. Reggie Smith came the closest, falling three L.A. homers short. Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez andAdrian Beltre are big-name players who played at least a full season for both teams. Pedro Martinez came up with the Dodgers but found fame with the Expos and Red Sox. There have been others.

More timely is that both managers in the Series played for both teams. That has never happened before. And they are good friends. Alex Cora and Dave Roberts were teammates in Los Angeles when Roberts was dealt to Boston in 2004. Roberts' Red Sox career resulted in the most lasting fame ever earned by a pinch runner. On Monday, Cora, who is one of five players to appear in at least 300 games for both clubs, entertained reporters with some mock jealousy of Roberts' standing in Beantown.

"You never know who is going to step up to the plate or going to be on the mound or going to be playing defense that can be the hero," Cora said. "Dave Roberts in '04. He came here, he stole that base against the Yankees, and the rest is history. Now he comes here, and he makes a lot of money signing autographs. I know he puts 'The greatest stolen base in the history of the game.'"

There is of course a long-standing sports rivalry between the cities, though it has little to do with hardball and everything to do with hardwood. If you go to the rivalry finder at, the default setting is Celtics and Lakers. That will happen when teams have played 74 games in the NBA Finals against each other.

It would be swell if Larry Bird were a minority owner of the Red Sox, as Magic Johnson is with the Dodgers, but that isn't the case. The closest Larry Bird tie-in to baseball is that he shares a birthday with Johnny Bench and Kyle Hendricks. But one carry-over effect of that old NBA rivalry is that it was in Boston, in the early 1980s, that the "Beat L.A.!" chant began.

"I wish they wouldn't have started that," the Dodgers' Justin Turner said. "It's annoying everywhere we go."

The Celtics and Lakers haven't met for a title in more than eight years, and unless LeBron James works some miracles within a year or two in Los Angeles, that drought will probably stretch to at least a decade. That means this is the perfect chance for the Red Sox and Dodgers to renew the cross-country bad blood in an entirely new milieu.

Why does this meeting generate so much aesthetic interest? You can't say for sure, but there is something about the icons involved in the pairing. Think of the Platonian version of a Dodgers game. Pick an era -- Koufax, Sutton, Hershiser, Kershaw -- and it doesn't matter, you're probably thinking of a starting pitcher. It looks the same. It's a sunny afternoon at Dodger Stadium, with the mountains in the background and the palm trees swaying. Vin Scully is calling the game in his silky voice. The uniforms are white, with the timeless Dodgers script sprawled in blue across every jersey front.

Now switch your mind to the Red Sox. You're probably thinking of left field, not just because of the Green Monster but because of the players who have been positioned in front of it. Duffy Lewis, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Mike Greenwell, Manny-being-Manny and, now, Andrew Benintendi. It's probably a grayish afternoon, and Jerry Remy's unmistakably roguish Boston accent is accentuating the action. The uniforms are white, with the old-timey lettering in red.

Face it: This series features some of the most timeless imagery and playing venues we have in American sports. And we get to mix it all up and scramble it: the Red Sox toiling before the palm trees, Justin Turner taking aim at the Green Monster.

"When you think about the two storied franchises," said Dodgers starter Rich Hill, a New England native who grew up rooting for the Red Sox, "and two of the biggest markets -- not just in baseball but in any sports -- this is going to be tremendous for the sport. And also for the fan bases. I think people are just going to enjoy the heightened emotions that are going to be going on during this World Series. But also the storied pasts of both organizations."

Hill, who also supported the Celtics and Bruins as a youth, admitted that "probably at some point" he might have joined in a "Beat L.A.!" chant.

Not everyone in the landlocked sectors of the baseball world agrees with some of these sentiments. Some see this as a money ball series -- two words, not like the book, because it's about the green stuff, not the smart deployment of quantitative analysis. It is certainly true that Boston and Los Angeles are two major markets, with the Red Sox leading the majors in payroll and the Dodgers ranking third. We can stipulate those things as being true.

But when you focus on the baseball aspects of it -- the top-shelf talent, the strategic storylines, the historic nature of the franchises, the venerable playing venues -- this series has it all.

"The Celtics and the Lakers, of course they're going to tie that into baseball," said Matt Kemp, who will DH for the Dodgers in Game 1 against Chris Sale. "It is what it is. Boston is passionate about their sports, and L.A. is really passionate about their sports. It's going to be exciting. It's going to be loud. It's going be interesting. Two great teams. I can't wait."

A lot has been written about the first-time nature of this matchup, perhaps because it seems so wondrous that in the 60 seasons since the Dodgers arrived in Los Angeles, these two marquee franchises had not met in the Fall Classic. But here they are, and for all practical purposes, they meet on even footing.

Let's repeat that because a lot of the questions pointed at the Dodgers since they clinched the National League pennant in Milwaukee were about entering the World Series as underdogs. From a Vegas/betting standpoint, that's true. The odds in those markets are what they are. But make no mistake: These teams are of virtually equal quality. You might point at the clubs' regular-season win totals and beg to differ, but there is a lot of context in those numbers, and each adjustment brings the teams closer together.

"It's kind of a role reversal for us," Roberts said, having some fun with his team's perceived underdog status. "It's the high-payroll, high-powered Red Sox. For us to kind of be in the game, that's a good thing for us.

"So I like the underdog role. I do know that everyone in our clubhouse doesn't see it as icing on the cake. It's been our goal since last year to win a World Series. It's a good club over there, but we still like our guys. It's going to be a good one. They're going to get everything we have."

The Red Sox led the majors with 877 runs, while the Dodgers scored 804 to finish fifth. L.A. allowed just 610 runs (second in the majors) to Boston's 648 (sixth). The net was plus-229 for Boston, ranked second, and plus-194 for Los Angeles, ranked third. The expected wins generated by those differentials was 103 for the Red Sox and 101 for the Dodgers. Already, Boston's 16-game edge in actual wins is all but gone, and that's before you factor in an American League landscape strewn with rebuilding teams.

The big reason for the win gap was performance in close games. Boston went 42-21 in games decided by two runs or fewer; Los Angeles was 37-42. The general thinking is that teams' true quality is better represented in blowout games. Well, both teams were 21 games over .500 in contests decided by five or more runs. Only Houston was better.

So let's not get carried away with any talk of favorite and underdog when it comes to this series. The Red Sox might rate as slight favorites because all those wins gave them home-field advantage for the Series. Beyond that, it's a tight matchup between two high-powered teams, and it's a series that promises to go deep.

"Obviously, it's two of the biggest-market teams," Dodgers second baseman Brian Dozier said. "The history behind both, I think America has kind of wanted this for a long time. There are other teams that want the same thing, but me being in the American League for a long time, looking at the Dodgers and their history and stuff, having the chance to wear the Dodger uniform, it does mean a lot. It's not just another team. And obviously, the success of Fenway speaks for itself."

All of this means that if the series plays out like it might, it's a golden opportunity for one of the star players on hand to put some signature touches on his career résumé. And between the Red Sox and Dodgers, there is plenty of star power to go around.

According to fWAR over the past three seasons -- the players who have been the best of the best -- eight of the top 50 position players are on the Red Sox and Dodgers: Mookie Betts, Machado, Turner, J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Dozier, Ian Kinsler and Jackie Bradley Jr. Among pitchers, there are seven starters in the top 50: Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Rick Porcello, David Price, Hill, Kenta Maeda and Alex Wood. Both closers, Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel, rank in the top five among relievers.

These teams are stacked.

"Should be huge," Betts said. "I guess it should add some buzz to the fans. They have a big following. We have a big following. This will be good for baseball, for sure."

Storylines will multiply like Tribbles over the next few days. Here's one: the weather. The high temperatures in Boston this week range from the high 40s to the mid-50s. In Los Angeles late in the week, the thermometer is expected to break 90 degrees a couple of times. Try packing for a trip like that.

But before we get into the subplots and second guesses and real-time responses to the action that lies ahead, let's take a moment to appreciate what lies before us. It's Dodgers versus Red Sox. Dodger Stadium versus Fenway Park. East Coast versus West Coast. Warm versus cold. Friend Dave versus friend Alex.

At long last, it's Boston versus Los Angeles, with nary a basketball in sight, for the first time ever. This is a chapter in the baseball history book that has been missing for too long. Finally, we can start writing it.

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