On an overly on-the-nose Fourth of July, between eating hot dogs and heading out for fireworks, I flipped on some baseball: Los Angeles-Arizona, in Dodger Stadium. The sky outside in Minnesota was almost black, but California on TV was sunny. It was the top of the third, Clayton Kershaw was pitching, I was looking for my keys. The inning went how Kershaw innings have gone for a long time—in order, groundout-strikeout-flyout. A couple minutes later, Justin Turner, the friar-looking former afterthought who has become the Dodgers’ most consistent offensive threat, lifted a fastball up over the sky-blue centerfield wall.
I left for the evening without the feeling that I might be missing anything, and, as it turned out, the rest of the game was more of the same. Kershaw took a no-hitter into the seventh, and LA won 4-3. It wasn’t the likeliness of the outcome that had me unconcerned, though; it was that those few minutes had, by themselves, summarized the Dodgers’ sideways charm. They’re a great team, sure—even after a historic late-season swoon, they’ll likely finish with baseball’s best record in a division with three postseason entrants—but they’re not the only one. What sets these Dodgers apart, makes them something other than a company of experts marching to expected outcomes, is that their greatness is made up of near-total opposites. Pick whatever category you like, they stretch it until it snaps. They’re pedigreed and out-of-nowhere. They’re veterans and kids. They’re grim and brilliant and goofy and dumb. They’ve been touched by gods; they’ve dug themselves out of the dirt.
Or: they are Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner.
Everything that has been true about Kershaw still is. He was born in Dallas in March of 1988, stands six feet four inches tall, and is better than anyone alive at throwing baseballs. He carries that designation seriously. Breathing big lungfuls of air, sweat stringing his hair and beard, the working Kershaw seems to have stepped out of an old, bloody painting. He looks like he should be dragging a dead lion behind him. He has that vibe of the gloriously burdened, as if what makes him so good at what he does is his knowledge—deeper than anybody else’s—of how hard it is.
At 29, with more than a half-decade of accumulated brilliance, Kershaw has entered the stage of his career where people scan for faults, out of a desire for novelty as much as anything. He gives up four runs in five innings in April or tweaks his back in July, and candidates are nominated for his perch at the top of the sport. Then he turns a mound into the site of a three-hour war dance, and everyone settles back in for more of the usual.
The temptation, when trying to describe how Kershaw puts together his customary and totally bonkers seasons, is to categorize his offerings. He throws a fastball wrapped in barbed wire and breathes an audible pfft when he lets go of it, so that it seems to come not from a left arm but from a pressurized cannon. His curveball is astrologic. His slider is the only one in the history of the sport that bends and then speeds up.
But really, Kershaw’s particular gifts impress less than his hold on them. It’s not that his pitches almost always do what he wants; it’s how much he hates it when they don’t, even for a moment. In his only compete game this year, on the last day before the All-Star break, Kershaw struck out 13 and allowed only two runs—an excellent afternoon by most standards and a good one by his. At one point, though, he bounced a ball in the dirt, and he curled his lip like someone was twisting screws into his toenails. The Dodgers behind him probably had to bite back smiles. This was the distillation of their ace, his effortful genius writ in body language. Plenty of athletes aim for and even expect perfection, but sometimes Kershaw seems to deserve it.
Turner will finish the season among the top five in hitting and on-base percentage across baseball. When postseason announcers pass along this information in the coming weeks, they will do so with some incredulity, for two reasons. First, in the late-20s age range that for most athletes represents the prime of a career, around 2011, Turner was a pretty crummy New York Met, putting up a low average with little pop. He was a part-timer, somebody only diehards could even name. Second, although great ballplayers come in many shapes and styles, Turner doesn’t fit any of them. He has pudgy arms and packed thighs. His hair is red and neck-length—grown, one suspects, in an attempt to cover up a bald spot, but actually only emphasizing it—with a dense beard of matching color. He wears his jersey the way video store employees used to wear their polos.
When Turner came to LA in 2014, he started hitting: enough to find a semi-permanent spot in the lineup, if not quite enough to convince everyone that it wasn’t a fluke. Then, over the next two years, he kept it up. The Dodgers were never built around Turner—they seemed always to be waiting for him to become again who he so obviously was, aesthetically and historically—but they let him hang in the lineup while it lasted. He batted sixth or third, wherever the more important guys weren’t.
Now he’s one of the game’s best hitters. Theories have been offered, of course, centering on a retooled swing and fly-ball approach, but they only give a veneer of sense-making to the basic weirdness of watching Turner scatter doubles. His hands aren’t noticeably quicker; the leg-kick that he installed is, for most players, something to be sanded away. It seems almost as if, instead of catching up to the game, Turner has roped it into his own slack zone. His swing starts as a slouch and ends as a fresh-out-of-bed stretch. His base hits backspin onto open grass, and his homers hit the bleachers as softly as beach balls.
Turner signed a four-year contract extension this past winter, and his productivity will almost certainly drop off by the end of it. He’s found something, but such findings, for 32-year-old hitters, tend not to be permanent. The eventual slide is for future Dodger teams to worry about. This one gets to enjoy what comes first.
There is no illusion in sports as persistent as the baseball uniform. When 25 people wear the same one, we start to think of their actions not as distinct—which they largely are—but as joined on some causal line. The logic is circular and leans on types, but it is almost unavoidable. Young Pitcher settles in because Cleanup Hitter gave him a two-run cushion in the first. Fourth Starter tries to match on Thursday what Third Starter did on Wednesday. Shortstop makes a diving stab because Quick Worker keeps the infield on its toes.
The thinking becomes more tempting the harder you have to strain for it. The 2017 Dodgers are a hodgepodge through-and-through: the possibly stoned rookie Cody Bellinger blasting homers, the recovered post-phenom Yasiel Puig playing perfect defense and lurking late in the lineup, the algebra-teacher-looking Rich Hill throwing pure funk. Still, despite the total—almost purposeful-seeming—lack of stylistic and temperamental cohesion, a general Dodger-ness insists upon itself. Something has to tie the three-run shots, the infield hits, the accumulated strikeouts, the various grins and grimaces.
Disparateness itself, then, becomes the theme. Another win comes from all over—Kershaw buzzing through one frame, Turner setting a baseball soaring the next—and you think, Sure. How else could it go?