By Bruce Shlain
I suppose I am like most fans in loving the harbingers of spring. The Masters. Wimbledon. And March Madness, capped off by Baseball’s Opening Day, with the NBA playoffs looming as the weather finally warms. However, after the first COVID-19 case in its league, the NBA put its regular season on hold, as did the NHL. Soon after the NCAA Tournament was canceled, and baseball was also put in suspended animation. Oh, and then they postponed the Olympics. The best idea for continuing at some point with professional baseball or basketball was to quarantine all the players in one place for months and play in front of…nobody. The TV revenue for finishing their seasons and playoffs remains a powerful lure, even without fans in the stands. Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League is currently playing with cardboard cut-outs of fans in the seats instead of human spectators.
How would ESPN, the MLB Network, and NBATV fill the airwaves? There was nothing going on, no slate of games. Nevada granted unemployment benefits to professional gamblers who had little to wager on besides the weather. The sports networks began showing classic all-time games, of course. But after a month or so of watching Bird and Magic and the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the ‘80s, and the re-broadcast of baseball’s greatest games, it started getting pretty old. What’s next? Re-runs of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” from over 50 years ago, so we can catch up on cliff diving in Acapulco or barrel jumping on skates in upstate New York? Spare me.
I missed live competition, athletes under pressure to perform, straining to balance aggression with control under the bright lights. It’s why Reality TV has never appealed to me: I already had my Reality TV, and it was sports. I skipped the Denial Phase and went right to the Anger. I resented how insidiously sports had come to rule our world and establish routines that created a false sense of normalcy. Who needs the team owners, gouging municipal money for their new stadiums, charging 10 bucks for a beer and $25 for parking, and hiking your cable bill to boot? All the decent players make other-worldly money; they literally live in a different world than the fans. Who needs them? I tried to put it in perspective – the lack of televised sports is nothing compared to the body counts and the economy going up in smoke.
Still, there was a void. Maybe the experiences I’ve had as a fan could sustain me. During the time I lived in New York, I was in the old Yankee Stadium when Reggie Jackson closed out the ’77 World Series with three home runs, and I was there when Mookie Wilson’s grounder rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs to win Game Six of the ’86 Series. Mookie later said the noise made the ground shake on the field and he felt the vibrations going up his legs. I felt it in the stands at Shea as well, coming up through the concrete. During Mookie’s at-bat, the roar of the howling crowd was filled with pleading, begging, imploring, beseeching – just an unforgettable sound.
I do not want to come off so jaded, that I’ve been there and done that, but in many ways I have, and if that makes me a cranky old man, I wear that badge proudly. I have had a few brushes with the famous and notorious in my career. Yeah, I played pepper with Kevin Costner on the Field of Dreams in Dubuque, shared a hot tub with Dennis Rodman in Los Angeles, spent an afternoon with Ted Williams around the batting cage in spring training in Winter Haven. And when I did my first baseball book, I became friends with the ultra-generous prince of announcing, Ernie Harwell, the long-time broadcaster of the Detroit Tigers. I had grown up listening to him as “the sound of summer.” I wound up writing a piece on Ernie and the representatives from Harwell’s home state of Georgia made sure it went into the Congressional Record.
I had enough sports memories to last for the rest of my life. But the shutdowns of sports that came with the shelter-in-place orders for stopping the spread of COVID-19 still cut me to the core. They kept baseball going during WWII as a welcome distraction from the hard years of rationing and loss of lives, and now a lot of people are staying home and would surely watch ballgames, as a balm for the stir-crazy. It was nonetheless true that sports had always been more than just the Toy Department of life. When Hank Greenberg came back from the war, he hit a grand slam to clinch the ’45 pennant for the Tigers, giving everyone, at least in Detroit, a moment to feel that life was beginning anew. Likewise, after 9/11, when the Mets played the first game in New York City, Mike Piazza hit a game-winning homer for them. Then the Yankees hit a series of improbable late-inning home runs in New York in the 2001 World Series against the Diamondbacks, and New Yorkers wildly celebrated a very palpable rebirth of normal life. And again, after the Boston Marathon bombings, David Ortiz took the mike at Fenway Park and famously told everyone, “This is our fucking city, and nobody’s gonna dictate our freedom.” And then the Red Sox won the World Series. #BostonStrong indeed.
For those of us who thought a global pandemic that made everyone’s health and safety interdependent would ease the polarization of the American people, well, guess again. And yet, the applause for health care workers is communal and inspiring, and New York is planning a ticker tape parade for them when this is all over, whenever that may be. The parade will wind down Broadway, in the Canyon of Heroes, where the world champions of sport – Joe Namath, Tom Seaver, Lawrence Taylor, Derek Jeter – took their bows. Nothing could make you feel better in the midst of crisis than to imagine that glorious day.
It will be another kind of celebration when big crowds return to the arenas and stadiums. We really have no idea when that will be. The NFL is waiting to see what happens with baseball and basketball, and college football is problematic as well. Will there even be students on a college campus? Whether the fans can congregate in 2020 (not likely), 2021, or even later, nobody really knows, just as nobody knows about the potential second wave of the virus in the fall.
At some point it will happen, people packed together in huge numbers. And there will eventually be another golden moment that reminds us all that the games that we have elevated to such significance are more than just entertainment. When the New Orleans Saints played their first home game after Katrina in 2006 on “Monday Night Football,” it only took 90 seconds before the Saints scored a touchdown on a blocked punt, a moment of revival and hope for everyone in the region. That game is ranked as the greatest in the history of The Superdome. Somewhere, sometime, fans will again feel in unison those vibrations coming up through their legs, and those in attendance, and the rest of us watching from home, will feel the most uncommon commonality, and remember it for the rest of time.
Bruce Shlain is a big athletic supporter, and a fair-weather fan of the first degree, rooting for
the local team in whatever city he finds himself wasting his time -- in his hometown outside Detroit, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, or New York. His storied crazy-quilt of a career as a poet, investigative journalist, sports columnist, reviewer, celebrity profiler, editor, television news producer, and copywriter has brought him incredibly paltry amounts of money and fame, but he remains a legend to a few close friends, and in what is left of his own mind. His long-awaited memoir, Wha’ Happened?, is chock-full of the Kafkaesque whimsy that has put many of his admirers into a deep sleep for years.