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Coastal Commuter

This sporting half-life

There will be no roar of the crowd when Major League Baseball returns in late July to play a shortened season in empty stadiums. Photo: briankapeesh

It’s been more than 100 days and counting since the last time a game was played in any of the four major American professional sports, and this loyal-through-thick-and-thin fan of the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers, and Golden State Warriors is feeling the void. At our current moment in history, things couldn’t be thinner. And that’s in a year that began with a Niners NFC Championship—followed by an admittedly disheartening Super Bowl appearance. Yeah, I’m jonesing.

To set the record straight, I don’t much care about the San Jose Sharks. Ever since childhood, my hockey team of choice has been the Philadelphia Flyers, and that won’t change. And just to be clear on the baseball side of things, I care even less about the Oakland A’s. Long ago, I picked a Bay Area baseball squad—the Giants—and have been happy to stick with it.

Beyond any discussion of masks, social-distancing, vaccines, and disease vectors in our daily lives, there’s been copious debate about the dangers of returning to some degree of normalcy in the sporting world. How can athletes at close quarters be protected from infection? As for the health and safety of the patrons, crowded stadiums and arenas—which provide a necessary source of income for team owners and a home-field advantage for the players themselves—are potential germ cauldrons. So we wait for some forward motion and miss cheering our teams in action, while cognizant of the peril to many who are at risk.

WINNING BY LOSING

Here’s a mixed blessing: Recent reports say that the National Basketball Association is hoping to resume play at the end of July with a scaled-down tournament in Orlando, Florida to find a champion for the truncated 2019–2020 season. But there are no guarantees of success with sweat-soaked body-on-body action under the net that screams “viral transmission.” Not that it particularly matters to most Warriors fans. If this attempt to save a season goes off amid pandemic restrictions, the Warriors won’t even be playing. They’re out of any playoff-style round-robin due to their abysmal record when the lockdown put every franchise on indefinite hiatus in mid-March.

The Dubs’ bottom-of-the-standings record was largely a consequence of injury to two All-Stars—Steph Curry and Klay Thompson—and the injury and departure of another top-liner, Kevin Durant. The Dubs weren’t going anywhere but into the draft lottery for next season. So rather than play out the string, Steph and Klay (and a dinged-up Draymond Green) can recover and focus on returning to contention with a full roster for a 2020–2021 playoff run. They got a mulligan with this lost season, only months after almost scoring their fourth NBA championship in five years.

THE PUCK STOPS WHERE?

Like the NBA, the National Hockey League plans to move on from a suspended season. The NHL powers-that-be say they will use the won-loss records at stoppage to pick the top 24 teams out of 31 to participate in a revised version of the Stanley Cup playoffs that would be held in two as-yet-undetermined “hub cities” at an as-yet-undetermined time. Uh . . . Go Flyers? 

There’s little way to put a positive spin on the state of Major League Baseball, and the same goes for a Giants team that is in full rebuilding mode. Although we can wait on the latter’s return to relevance, pro baseball’s survival has been on the line in the face of this crisis. After much haggling about number of games, salary structures, and when to start, the owners and the players finally agreed on a 60-game season to commence around July 23 in empty ballparks across the land. That’s considerably shorter than the standard 162 games. To my chagrin, the MLB honchos are using the occasion to force National League teams to adopt the strategy-killing designated-hitter rule that has heretofore been the sole province of the American League. Even crazier, any extra innings that are played will begin with a runner on second base. Blasphemy!

To their credit, baseball’s caretakers avoided the outright cancellation of the 2020 season. This doesn’t get around the logistical nightmares involved in the safe return of 30 NL and AL teams to competition (with or without people in the stands). As with the other sports, testing and player and staff isolation must be addressed. And baseball has its own set of hygiene problems, such as spitting in the batter’s box. If a deliberate cough in someone’s face is considered assault these days, is a pitcher who throws a spitball asking for a charge of attempted murder? The Big Show, although clearly diminished, will go on. What that means for baseball is anybody’s guess, but the shortened season could be a boon to the Giants, whose untested youngsters and elder statesmen on the downside of their careers could get hot and surprise everyone. Giants Fever would definitely be preferable to COVID-19.

THE GREAT RED & GOLD HOPE

Regardless of when any of the sports return to action, the one I most eagerly await is football. That could be due to the high-caliber play of the Niners this past year and their continued growth as a powerhouse under general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan. Or it could be my desire to see them avenge their loss in Super Bowl LIV. In any case, the coronavirus-driven sports drought has only enhanced my fixation on the Niners’ off-season progress: their moves in late April’s NFL draft; their informal workouts in the shadow of quarantine; the health and well-being of the players such as rising star receiver Deebo Samuel, who incurred a recent foot injury (get well quick, Deebo); and the contract status of their stars—especially All-World tight end George Kittle (please sign, George).

With all that’s happening, will we even see NFL football in the fall? If so, where and when? Going on the assumption that the league will learn from the other pro sports’ efforts to reopen for business and will be able to protect its players, will stadiums be full? Kittle says he’d be happy to play in front of empty houses when our red-and-gold-clad army invades enemy enclaves such as Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, home of the Seahawks, and New Orleans’ Superdome, home of the Saints, where the noise level of the fans can undermine a visiting team. 

I guess we have to wait some more to see how any of this plays out, so to speak. In the meantime, somebody please bubble-wrap Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on “Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast,” via GABnet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and “The Mark Thompson Show” on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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