Welcome Back, Live Sports…?

Even with the return of live sports, images of players like the Rangers' Robinson Chirinos wearing masks serve as a reminder of just how strange things look in 2020.

If I’ve trailed off, I apologize. Like many Americans, I’m at a loss for words to describe much of anything in 2020, especially the year 2020 itself. It’s been awful, sad, infuriating, terrifying, puzzling, just to name a few. But, as we slog through the dog days of summer and what we hope are the soon-to-be-ending dog days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we do have one thing to look forward to: live sports! Well, kind of…

I have been grappling for a long time with the idea of accepting watching sports without fans, and I’ve come to this conclusion: I will not stop grappling. In no way is this okay or acceptable, but since it’s the only way we can have sports right now, I implore traditionalist sports fans like myself to look at all of these games across MLB, the NBA, and NHL as simply an exhibition to keep us occupied from the rigors of this pandemic. That is generally what sports are, but never has its role in society been more profound than right now.

As you’ve noticed, I haven’t blogged much lately, in part because there’s been very little in the sports landscape to blog about, and in part because I don’t consider anything happening in the world of sports right now to be real or meaningful. The backdrop of lost lives, illness, economic hardship, and general uncertainty has, for the first time in my 36-year life, rendered sports a little less important.

With that said, it is nice to have something on TV to watch in present day, and the general consensus of my friends and family is, sports without fans that don’t feel normal is still much better than no sports at all. I’ve begrudgingly started to agree, even as the majority of my sports-watching time is still spent watching games from 2019 and prior because I feel more connected to those moments than these surreal ones we are all currently experiencing.

So here now are a few musings and semi-predictions as major professional sports has (eerily) resumed in the US of A in 2020.

Please don’t crown a World Series champion without an actual asterisk

The word “asterisk” has been thrown around a lot in recent months within MLB circles because of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal that taints their 2017 World Series title (you can read my thoughts on that here). But that asterisk is nothing compared to the one that needs to be attached to 2020’s MLB champ, no matter what team it is. Because not doing so is truly a slap in the face to the beauty and the grind of a traditional, 162-game season.

What we are watching in baseball right now, with no spectators, with star players opting out left and right, with two teams vastly behind schedule due to COVID-19 outbreaks, with regional play only to limit travel, with seven-inning doubleheaders, with a universal designated hitter, with a runner on second to start every extra inning, is merely an exhibition. This, in my opinion, is Spring Training masquerading as a regular season.

MLB could expand the playoff field to 30 and it wouldn’t make this year’s winner any more legitimate. So whether it’s the Yankees winning No. 28 (more like 27.5?), the Dodgers ending their 32-year drought, the Cubs winning their second in 112 years, or some off-the-grid team taking home the hardware, there will be no parade. There will not be – or should not be, at least – a dropping of the banner at the 2021 home opener. When you consider what the Nationals did last year, that should validate this opinion even more. Through 50 games in 2019, the Nationals were 19-31, which would have guaranteed a losing season had they played in 2020. They would not have had time to show the gall to turn things around by going 86-43 the rest of the way, including winning five postseason elimination games. That, my friends, is a title worth celebrating and noting in the record books, just as the 108-win Red Sox before them, and, yes, even the 2017 Astros before them.

The statistics should count, but not in any historical context. Sure, if Aaron Judge ends up with 38 homers in 60 games, it should be appreciated, but not cherished. The same goes for a DJ LeMahieu batting title, which would allow him to join only Ed Delahanty (1899, 1902) as the only players to win hitting crowns in both leagues. One-third of a season worth of gawdy numbers does not a season make.

Let’s enjoy some of the nice stories of 2020, like the return of Daniel Bard, or the early-season success of underdog teams like the Orioles and Padres. Beyond that, let’s call a spade a spade. Better yet, let’s call a sham a sham.

Bubbles not bursting yet

Good for the NBA and NHL for doing everything in their power to finish their seasons. Contrary to baseball, which hadn’t started and probably never should have, the NBA and NHL had finished the bulk of their regular seasons, so these playoffs, even without fans and in neutral sites, feels a lot more legitimate and tolerable.

Playoff hockey without fans – in August, no less – feels bizarre, to say the least. A little less so for basketball, but also strange. But with traditional playoff formats in place, and what appears to be a high level of playoff intensity in the NHL thus far, there is much more of a feeling of normalcy as the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway. I do not believe either league’s title-winning team will deserve any less credit than usual, and perhaps even more because of the four-or-so-month disruption their seasons endured when the pandemic hit.

I did not make an official title prediction in either sport, but was envisioning a Flyers-Avalanche Stanley Cup matchup when hockey paused in March, and much to my surprise the Flyers surged to the top seed in the Eastern Conference when they resumed play. For basketball, it’s much harder to peg, but I’m leaning chalk with Lakers-Bucks. It would be anticlimactic for a proud franchise like the Lakers to take home the title in front of no one, but perhaps a nice way to cap what has been an especially-trying year for the organization in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death in late January.

How about that NFL?

Of the four major pro sports leagues, the NFL was the only one positioned to potentially get off scot-free in 2020, but that hope has faded as the pandemic raged over the summer. Although one would imagine they had a good chance to play a full season, this is not how I wanted to enjoy what will likely be the last-ever 16-game regular-season. Thanks to owner greed – and an assist from Roger Goodell – the league will probably trigger a 17th game starting in 2021. This seems even more likely given the need to offset the big losses suffered by not having fans in the stands at many stadiums.

As many players have opted out and many historic stadiums stand to be empty for the entirety of 2020, the NFL will not be the ones to restore true “normalcy” in sports this year. One question I have wondered about since the beginning of the pandemic is, will the Super Bowl be played in front of a full audience? It’s scheduled for February 7, 2021 in Tampa. It’s unlikely a vaccine will be widely distributed by then, leading me to believe it will feature fans, but also plenty of masks and social distancing.

Another word comes to mind when I think about the NFL and their plans for 2020: stubbornness. Again, I’m sure I speak for most fans when I say that I’ve been pondering what this season might look like since this all started in mid-March. I truly thought the best course of action was for the NFL to utilize a built-in extra month they had allotted into the schedule, meaning they could’ve pushed the start date back to mid-October and the Super Bowl to the end of February. My feeling was that might allow some cities hesitant to allow fans into local stadiums a chance to reconsider, and also increase the odds of getting closer to capacity crowds for postseason football in late January and early February. But of course, Goodell and the NFL dare not be bothered, even by a pandemic. Selfishly, the purist in me was also hoping this would happen because reportedly if it had, the league would have tacked Weeks 1-4 on to the end of the season, which would have meant zero division games in Week 17. We have not had the pleasure of seeing a non-division contest in Week 17 since 2009, leading to some of the same stale matchups to end the season year after year.

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