The second-guessing came early and furiously.
Chipper Jones tweeted, “Fire me… I’m riding my horse!”
Dude has a 9k-2 hit shutout, with 75 pitches??? And u yank him?? Fire me……I’m riding my horse! Now 2-1 Dodgers…..
— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) October 28, 2020
Alex Rodriguez said, “Worst decision I’ve seen in all of the #WorldSeries I’ve watched.”
I still can't get over it. Worst decision I've seen in all of the #WorldSeries I've watched.
— Alex Rodriguez (@AROD) October 28, 2020
When kids dream of a big league future no one tells them that taking the sport’s biggest stage also exposes them to the sport’s most feral critics. You find that unpleasant part out later, like Dave Roberts did many years ago.
Roberts will never have to pay for a bottle of wine or a five-course meal in Boston ever again thanks to a stolen base in an American League Championship Series game 16 years ago. But his story in Dodger blue is, or was, a different one. No matter how much’s won, which has been a lot, Twitter was there to never let him forget the losses.
After the Dodgers’ disastrous Game 5 loss to the Washington Nationals in last year’s National League Division Series, calls for his firing were, forgive me, at fever pitch. Roberts would later tell me that while he heard the boos in Dodger Stadium that night, he had no idea that so many in the media naturally assumed he was not returning.
Roberts heard the Game 5 boos again, this time in Sunday’s World Series game against the Tampa Bay Rays. He pulled Clayton Kershaw, suddenly cruising after a rough start, with two outs in the sixth inning of a one-run game for Dustin May, who decidedly had not been cruising in his most recent postseason appearances.
It worked out. May got the third out and the Dodgers bullpen would not give up another run in October.
That’s baseball, as Roberts has been known to say.
The Tweets referenced at the start of this column, of course, were not targeted at Roberts’ decision-making, but at Rays manager Kevin Cash. Two nights after Roberts’ bullpen gambit, Cash one-upped his Dodgers counterpart by pulling Blake Snell, cruising and dominant from the very first pitch, with one out in the sixth inning of a one-run game.
It did not work out. Two batters later, the Dodgers had a lead they would not relinquish.
That, too, is baseball. But clearly no one wants to hear that.
As for Roberts, whose .614 winning percentage is currently third all time, he is undoubtedly relieved this postseason concluded with someone else being ridiculed for a pitching change that didn’t work out. He just wants his ring, his place in history and perhaps, to paraphrase LeBron James, some damn respect.
Despite the 2020 championship, the division titles, the 2016 manager-of-the-year award, and that winning percentage, Roberts is still getting a side-eye from some fans who claim they won despite his decisions and not because of them. Alas, when you dare to helm one of the game’s crown jewels, there’s no shortage of armchair auditors on hand to make sure you don’t depreciate its value.
My hope is that more Dodgers fans come to realize Roberts is also a jewel to be cherished. That doesn’t mean he’s above reproach or that I have never questioned some of his decisions. Of course I have. But he continues to carry himself with dignity and grace in times both good and non-championship. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in baseball who will say anything negative about his character.
I would like to think that still counts in sports — especially since he also wins.
Roberts, the franchise’s first Black manager, is just the second to win the World Series. When you’re first to do something of significance, there is an added sense of responsibility not to screw things up for those who dare to follow. That might be uncomfortable for some to read but it’s real talk. Every groundbreaking sports figure I’ve spoken to has expressed some variation of this sentiment to me from Valerie Palmer, the NBA’s first female referee to Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL.
Roberts too, who also had the added burden of being the go-to interview for the team during the summer of protests against racial inequities. Imagine juggling questions about systemic racism while also trying to decide whether a struggling Kenley Jansen should come in or not, recognizing there isn’t an answer to either query that the masses won’t pick apart.
It’s a lot but he handled it all masterfully, despite the criticism.
A botched May outing in Game 5 and Cash hitting on his Game 6 risk and it’s the Rays who were stampeding across Globe Life Field on Tuesday night. For Roberts, it very well could have been the end of his Dodgers years. No complimentary meals or bottles of wine in L.A. No history-making victory. No respect from those hesitant to give him much a great deal of it to begin with.
Instead it’s Cash on the outside looking in with Roberts no longer wondering how much longer he gets to stay.