Baseball Finds a Big Bad

One of my personal heroes, James Holzhauer, once described himself as, “a connoisseur of low culture.” Those who regularly interact with me would correctly identify me as something of a discount version of that statement. Not that I’m a true connoisseur of anything, but I do have a relatively large knowledge base, and I’d rather listen to My Chemical Romance than Giacomo Puccini or read books from Michael Grant over James Joyce. I’m not much for nuance; typically, I enjoy watching something much more when I can create something of a clear rooting interest. If there isn’t one ready-made, I’ll create a hero and a villain myself to heighten the experience for me. And now baseball has found something it hasn’t had in quite some time, as the Dodgers step into the role of a true Big Bad.

The Dodgers have become an obvious fit for the villain role. They just won the World Series. They’ve won their division in eight consecutive seasons. The last time they finished a season under .500, Chad Billingsley led the team in fWAR. They’ve been in the top four in payroll every year since 2013, and will be first by a wide margin in 2021. On their roster is a player who has been suspended for domestic violence and another who was suspended for throwing at the heads of three batters in the same inning (aside: just because this was against the Astros doesn’t make an attempt to maim other people with a projectile defensible). And, oh yeah, they also just gave a record-breaking contract to a truly noxious person. My apologies to the extremely likable and seemingly exemplar guys Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts, but come on. The Dodgers are villainous.

That the Dodgers are the league’s mustache-twirlers isn’t much of a controversial take; they probably would’ve been so a few years ago if it weren’t for their lack of a championship and Kershaw’s status as a tragic hero. Now, some may take issue with my assertion that the Dodgers are the first Big Bad baseball has had in years. I’m positive the thought that arose in many, many of your minds was the 2020 Astros. That arose in my mind too! So too did a handful of other teams from recent years who were clearly the bad guy in a certain season. This brings me to the true purpose of this article: identifying prior villainous teams and explaining why they were more like Ulysses Klaue than the Thanos the Dodgers have become.

Author’s Note: This is pretty much all going to be purely subjective. If you have a team you think was worthy of inclusion in this discussion, please tweet it at me, and if I find their case compelling I’ll add them to the article.

2020 Astros

Why They’re a Villain: I’ll start with the obvious one. The banging scheme happened. This, coupled with the unapologetic manner in which the players reacted to this scandal, made the Astros a near-universally hated team for a year. Everyone wanted to boo them or throw at their heads (a far worse crime than cheating). The fact that they finished the season under .500 did nothing to quell the odium, and their offensive explosion in the Postseason added to it. While the sins were actually committed by the 2017-18 team, villainy, in my eyes, cannot be retroactive. So the 2020 club finds themselves on this list.

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: Frankly, as was often ignored by their online detractors, the Astros played the 2020 season significantly shorthanded when compared to their 2019 roster. The 2019 Astros might’ve been the greatest roster ever assembled. The 2020 version was either entirely or mostly without their two best starting pitchers, their best hitter, three of their four best relievers, and their starting catcher. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Yordan Alvarez, Roberto Osuna, Will Harris, Joe Smith, and Robinson Chirinos were all, essentially, gone. I’m not trying to say that the Astros deserved sympathy for losing good players by any means. But the threat they presented to the rest of the league was far lower than it had previously been, keeping them from the same level of villainy as the 2021 Dodgers.

2019 Astros

Why They’re a Villain: I said no retroactive villains, so what gives? Well, as I already stated, the Astros went into the 2019 season with an all-time great roster. They had just won a World Series two seasons prior and were arguably the best team in the league in 2018. There was a target on their back already. Then they went and got the beloved, but still elite, Zack Greinke to give them another Hall of Fame caliber player. They faced off against two charismatic teams in the Postseason, the Rays and Nationals, who were both receiving overwhelming popular support among fans. But that isn’t what truly puts them on this list. No, what puts them on was the disgusting clubhouse incident revolving around Brandon Taubman. This sunk a team that observers were leery of rooting for into one who could truly be hated.

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: They weren’t fully evil for long enough. It’s that simple. The Taubman disaster is what turned them truly in that direction, yet there were only seven games after it. What he did was horrible, to be clear. But the fact that it happened so late in the year saves the team from being a Big Bad, as they were only really hated for just a little while.

2018 Red Sox

Why They’re a Villain: They won 108 games. They flexed financial muscle in signing J.D. Martinez. They’re also one of baseball’s classic big-market antagonists. Yet none of that is the true reason the World Champion BoSox are listed here. Instead it’s the fact that they had something of a banging scheme-lite. No trash cans were used in this case, but signs were illegally stolen and punishments were handed down by the league.

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: First of all, it would be a retroactive villainy. I already said that doesn’t really count. But the more important reason is that no one really knew how good the team was. A lot of people, myself included, picked the Yankees to win that division over the Red Sox. There wasn’t the expectation that they would be the primary threat to the rest of the league, just one of a handful of minor threats.

2018 Brewers

Why They’re a Villain: This is a bit more of a personal opinion, but I hated the 2018 Brewers. Their biggest weapon was a known racist, and they weren’t anywhere near as good a team as their record suggested. They took care of a far better team in the Cubs and a relatable underdog in the Rockies. The Brewers even pushed the far-better Dodgers to the brink. Yet they weren’t that good; they didn’t even have a real starting pitcher!

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: This one is pretty easy. They weren’t well-known. The 2018 Brewers were a small-market team who kind of flew under the radar. They’re forgettable and ended up as nothing more than a nuisance. Plus, I’ll say it again, they weren’t good.

2016 Cleveland

Why They’re a Villain: I feel bad for the Spiders here. This wasn’t their fault. They were a rather likable team (with the exception of the newest Dodger) until the World Series started. Then they had the misfortune of facing down the Cubs, whom every baseball fan, nay, every sports fan on the planet had as their rooting interest. That cast the Cleveland team as a villain. Sorry guys.

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: For the reasons I just said. They did nothing wrong, and were fairly charming for a long while. They just drew the wrong opponent at the wrong time. A villain, yes, but a minor one.

2015 Cardinals

Why They’re a Villain: They won 100 games. They forced baseball’s two most fun teams, the 98-win Pirates and the 97-win Cubs, to take part in a one-game playoff. And they’re the Cardinals. We’ve all long been tired of seeing them win. They’ve lost any and all charm. Their fanbase is terrible on Twitter. This team was easy to root against.

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: They didn’t have a player on which we could focus hate. It was just something of a tired feeling. No fervor was involved. The hatred was almost out of obligation.

2014 Giants

Why They’re a Villain: Really, these guys again? That’s what everyone had to be thinking when Madison Bumgarner single-handedly won the 2014 World Series. I certainly was. It doesn’t help that Bumgarner isn’t much of a likable figure; he actively polices baseball’s anti-fun unwritten rules. It also doesn’t help that they just weren’t a very good team, winning only 88 games. Another offense was that they knocked out the superior and very fun Pirates in the Wild Card game. But the topper was that it was their third title in five years. They didn’t need it. These guys again?

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: This basically boils down to them not being a great team. No one was afraid of the Giants. They won almost by accident. No one really liked them. No one was happy about their title. But no one viewed them as imposing.

2012 Tigers

Why They’re a Villain: This team just felt like a lock to win the World Series. They had Verlander and Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera and had signed Prince Fielder to a massive deal. Their title felt pre-ordained, especially when they won the pennant. All year this team was expected to win. Everyone was gunning for them.

Why They’re Not a Big Bad: Much like the Cardinals, there was no one to hate. At the time, every player on that roster was genuinely likable. They didn’t play with a villainous persona, even though it would’ve been fitting.

Thinking back, the closest comparison I could find to the 2021 Dodgers was the 2009 Yankees. They signed the offseason’s two biggest free agents, they had players people could hate, and they were the Yankees. And in the end they won. They won a lot, namely 103 regular season games and the World Series. The 2021 Dodgers are something baseball hasn’t had in over a decade, at least in my eyes. From a narrative standpoint, I love it. That they’ve achieved that status in large part by having certainly unsavory characters on the roster, I’m not sure baseball fandom as a whole should love it. The Dodgers are a villain now. They’re the lone Big Bad. Let the hating begin. I have.

Sean Huff

Sean is an applied psychology graduate student in his third semester at Fordham College of Arts and Sciences. He is a lifelong baseball fan with a nominal affinity for the Phillies. You can follow him on Twitter at @srhkthew2 for occasional comments on baseball and assorted esoterica.

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