The front office had spent years together building the low-budget operation into a legitimate perennial World Series contender opposite big-money behemoths. Executives went to each other’s weddings. They were around for their children’s births. They built a bond beyond baseball. Friedman was leaving some of his best friends.
One day, they joked, they would meet in the World Series.
“And for it to actually happen,” Friedman said, “is surreal.”
It’ll happen Tuesday when the Rays, the organization that gave a 28-year-old Friedman the front-office reins in 2006, and the Dodgers, the storied franchise he’s attempting to finally guide over the championship hump, meet for Game 1 of the World Series in the strangest of circumstances — at a neutral site with limited fans to conclude a pandemic-shortened Major League Baseball season.
First pitch is scheduled for 5:09 p.m. PDT at Globe Life Field.
“I've been trying to process it,” Friedman said.
The Rays — led by manager Kevin Cash and general manager Erik Neander, who began his career as an intern for Friedman — beat the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday to punch their ticket first. The Dodgers joined them the next night with a win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 on Sunday to complete their comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
The Dodgers are back in the World Series for the third time in four years, still searching for their first championship since 1988 — a decade before Tampa Bay played its first game as an expansion team.
The Rays are in the World Series for the second time in their short history. Their first appearance was in 2008, in Friedman’s third season as general manager and in their first season after dropping the Devil from their names. They lost in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies.
In another 2020 oddity, the last two teams standing posted the best records in the major leagues during the regular season. The Dodgers went 43-17 to finish with the best winning percentage by any team since 1954. The Rays finished three games behind, 40-20, against a superior schedule with AL East and NL East opponents.
The front offices share philosophies and thought processes. They don’t reside in the same tax bracket. The Rays’ prorated payroll this season — $28.2 million — was higher than just the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. At the other end of the spectrum, the Dodgers’ $107.9-million payroll ranked second to the New York Yankees.
“Payrolls don't decide the standings,” Friedman said. “And I think we see evidence of that every year. I think having a really deep, talented roster regardless of what your payroll is, is the key to winning games and that's what they have.”
The difference in resources is evident in how the teams acquired cornerstone outfielders during the offseason.
The Dodgers went big-game hunting, acquiring Mookie Betts from the Boston Red Sox for three players in February before giving him a 12-year, $365-million contract extension. Betts was the final, expensive, piece to their puzzle.
The Rays remained low key. In January, Tampa Bay traded Matthew Liberatore, a top pitching prospect, to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena. Martinez was thought to be the prize. He was a potent right-handed bat that would seamlessly fit in at designated hitter. Instead, the Rays traded Martinez at the trade deadline and Arozarena, 25, became a star in October.
The left fielder is batting .382 with a 1.288 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 14 postseason games. His seven home runs are a postseason rookie record. He was named the ALCS MVP. He’s been the lone consistent producer for a Rays offense that compiled 81 strikeouts in seven games against the Astros.
An offensive outage nearly cost them; the Astros became the second team to ever even a seven-game series after going down 3-0. The Rays prevailed in Game 7 on Saturday with a home run by Arozarena and strong pitching from one of the best staffs in baseball.
Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton comprise one of the top trios of starting pitchers across the majors. Tampa Bay backs them up with a stable of hard throwers in the bullpen. The Rays’ relief corps posted a 3.37 ERA during the regular season, third-best in the majors, and had 13 pitchers record a save — a major league record. In the playoffs, Rays relievers have logged 60-2/3 innings — more than any other team.
“If you look at an entire staff,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “there might not be a team in baseball that prevents runs better than those guys.”
The Dodgers overcame a strong Braves bullpen in the NLCS by grinding them out over seven days. The more they saw relievers, the more intel they gathered, the better the outcomes became. They outlasted Atlanta to return to the doorstop of a championship.
The path there was shorter but with more potholes. Clubs reported to summer camp unsure if the league would even reach opening day as COVID-19 cases continued rising around the country. The World Series was a distant fantasy.
“I was throwing [simulation] games in May, June in Dallas, thinking about, ‘Man, are we even going to play a season? Is this going to be a wasted year in everybody’s career? Is this going to be a wasted year for the Dodgers with the team we have?’” Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ Game 1 starter, said. “To be able to be here now and be four wins away from getting to win a World Series, it's a testament to a lot of people to be able to make this season happen.”
When the dust settled, and a season appeared likely to at least start, another question arose: What would a championship in 2020 even mean? Would the unique circumstances diminish its value?
Nearly four months later, after time away from families, after adhering to strict health protocols, after playing in empty stadiums and living in a bubble for more than two weeks to ensure the league reaches the finish line, the Dodgers dismiss the notion that this championship wouldn’t be legitimate.
“From day one, we came out as a group and said if there's a championship to be won we're going to go after it and we're going to try to run it down,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “So, playing good teams, a difficult format, not playing at home, being in a bubble, not seeing a lot of the teams all year long that we’re playing in the postseason — there's a lot of challenges that go into winning a championship this year. It's still gonna be special.”
For Friedman, the experience, going against the organization that groomed him and people he deeply cares about, will rise to another level. They joked about it six years ago and it’s actually going to happen.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.