One of the unqualified bright spots of 2020 was the Dodgers winning the World Series after a 32-year drought. Weeks before that, the Lakers took the world championship and made Los Angeles a double winner. It was the first time that has happened since 1988. But the Dodgers’ win was sweeter. It came after a whole generation of inexplicable near misses and postseason collapses that, as the years turned into decades, became more and more painful and exhausting to watch. Sweet also because in the year of Covid, expectations for practically everything went out the window; the Dodgers falling short again in 2020 would have actually made sense. Yet, in a year of so much scaling back and so much loss, they prevailed.
They prevailed in part because of their new star player, right fielder Mookie Betts. When he signed on for the 2020 season, just before the dawn of the pandemic, it got people in L.A. hooked on hope again. I was interested but noncommittal — too emotionally drained by Trump and Trumpism (talk about painful and exhausting) to risk experiencing more letdown. And yet I couldn’t help feeling a spark of serendipity. I had a dog named Mookie. I found him the year before, when he was a neighborhood stray. He was a small dog but stout, a ginger-and-white Shih Tzu or Lhasa apso mixed with something unlikely, like a bulldog. Dingy, wildly overgrown hair, his eyes almost crusted shut. But right away, I saw past the bedraggledness, and I saw his name in bright lights: Mookie.
For the record, this has happened to me a lot. Over the last dozen years I have rescued many dogs, not exactly by choice. Circumstances presented themselves: a lost dog appeared in my vicinity, and I took it in with the intention of finding the owner. If that didn’t work out, I tried to find it a home. Sometimes that home ended up being mine. I brought Mookie home to five dogs that I had kept after this process of elimination. I was sure Mookie was a keeper. Not because we connected instantly, even though I loved him in the abstract but intimate way that I love all animals in need. It was because the name came to me so clearly, like a lightning strike. In all my years of dog encounters, this had never happened.
“You’re a Mookie,” I announced to him on the first day, and he seemed to agree — or at least he didn’t disagree. He looked the part: squat, gentle but inscrutable, gremlin-like. And he was older, with the long-suffering air that reminded me of the protagonist Mookie in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
But I discovered that this Mookie was also improbably upbeat and self-confident. He would grab a treat from my hand with an almost savage gusto, then wait for another, his marble eyes staring without blinking or betraying emotion, like a ballplayer at bat. He was capable of great joy, moments in which his mouth would split open into a smile that almost went ear to ear. At those moments, I liked to imagine him out in right field, patrolling his territory, snuffling the ground until it was time to nab a fly ball on the run or stoop for a basket catch.
Mookie was also tough, undeterrable, skilled in the art of the comeback. Not long after I adopted him, he was attacked by my neighbor’s German shepherd, and he spent a week in a veterinary hospital recovering from surgery to resection his intestine. I was distraught — I had given him sanctuary, only to expose him to an ambush — but Mook voiced no complaints, not even a whimper. He recovered without complications. He also had a condition that caused his back feet to drag, to the point that they sometimes bled on the concrete. A neurologist suggested I crate him for a month. I balked. A month? That was too much time on the bench. I gambled: We kept walking, but I wrapped his back feet in nylon rain boots. After a month or so, he didn’t need the boots anymore.
Fully healed — or as healed as he was going to be — Mookie started to revel in his new success. On our walks he often broke into a full trot, face lit by that impossible grin, ears flopping, tongue dangling from one side of his mouth like a cigarette. Watching him was briefly but totally satisfying, like watching a Dodger ball sail over an outfield fence for a home run. Mookie was the unqualified bright spot in many of my darker days as I wrestled with so much during the year — my father’s death, fears that the death of democracy was pending, happiness itself.
Meanwhile the Dodgers, like the rest of baseball, made their way through the maze of Covid-19. They played without fans; games were suspended when necessary. They persevered in an imperfect season that kept reinventing itself. More and more, my Mookie felt like the mascot for the moment, and for a perilous year. When the Dodgers made it to the World Series and promptly teetered once again on the brink of collapse, I didn’t hold my breath — this was 2020, after all. But then they overcame, powered by Mookie Betts’s home run in the final game. Serendipity was now synergy: I resolved to buy a dog-size Dodger jersey with Betts’s name and number on the back, for Christmas. Mookie deserved the recognition.
Early in November, though, Mookie developed a bad cough and a wheeze. My vet diagnosed bronchitis, but it turned out to be something worse, something actually Covid-like in its effects. He was put into a tiny oxygenated kennel to help him breathe. But after a few days, it wasn’t enough. Mookie struggled, heaved, then started gasping for air like a fish out of water. On the fourth day, as I cried and held his head in my hands, he gasped mightily and then fell still, his tongue poked sideways out of this mouth the same way it did when he ran free.
Another sudden cataclysm in a cataclysmic year. I think about him, and my heart breaks. But then I’ll see another story about the world champion Dodgers, victorious after wandering for years in the wilderness — safely, at long last, on the other side of chaos. And the spark that went cold catches again. I think, with a disbelief that hangs heavily between grief and a defiant kind of elation: We did it, Mookie. We won.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing Opinion writer who has written regularly about race, identity and life in Los Angeles since 1992.
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