We’ve known for a while that, should team sports resume this year in these United States, they wouldn’t look the way they usually do. We went past normal a while ago. All we, and our sports themselves, can do now is ride the whirlwind that COVID-19 wrought while trying not to trigger another spike in the virus. Good luck to all of us.
For three months, our sports dialogue has — apart from the occasional discussion of Michael Jordan’s cigars and Tom Brady’s pants — centered on the resumption of games. When? Where? How? (Even a bit of “why?”) We’ve crept closer to some answers, but no plan has yet been finalized. MLB once considered staging its 2020 season in Arizona; that proposal was wadded up and tossed in yonder trash can. The NBA and MLS still have plans to play in Disney World. The NHL is said to be eyeing hub cities — one in the East, one in the West — for its restart.
The NHL plan is to move straight to its Stanley Cup playoffs, albeit in expanded mode. Rather than the usual 16 qualifiers, there’ll be 24. The other seven teams will spend the summer playing golf at social distances. Despite the protestations of bottom-feeders, such as your Atlanta Hawks, the NBA hopes to bring 22 of its 30 teams to Lake Buena Vista for (maybe) a few regular-season games and (definitely) a postseason tournament. Said tourney could last through Oct. 12. If that is in fact the end date, the 2019-20 basketball season would, counting training camps and exhibitions and noting this is a leap year, have run for 380 days.
Scenarios for baseball’s regular season — we stipulate that everything in 2020 is highly irregular — range from 82 games (owners’ proposal), 114 games (players’ counter-proposal) and 50 games (semi-compromise). If 82 seems ambitious, given that we’re into June and pitchers and catchers haven’t reported anywhere since the sports world halted in March, 114 sounds nuts. Even if the “regular” season would start July 1 and continue through Oct. 14, that’s 106 days. Even if teams played 106 consecutive days, which players would never agree to do, that would still require eight doubleheaders, and everybody hates those.
As for 50 games: Dare we say that would be too few? Over a 162-game schedule, 50 games bring us, give or take, to Memorial Day. Baseball prides itself on rewarding excellence over the long haul. On Memorial Day 2019, the Washington Nationals had the third-worst record among National League teams. On Oct. 30, they won the World Series.
I know, I know. In a pandemic year, there can be no “long haul.” Sports must settle for what, if anything, it can get. As an audience, so must we. It’s entirely possible that baseball’s players and owners, who can haggle over the last slice of day-old pizza, will fail to agree to anything. For a moment, MLS appeared headed for a baseball-style work stoppage, but an agreement between owners and players was reached Wednesday. The MLS is now set to resume — at Disney, sporting epicenter — with an in-season tournament next month.
Back to us, whose lot it is to pay witness: Assuming we haven’t done so already, we need to use this time to adjust our expectations. When our sports return, we mightn’t love what we see. At first blush, we’ll be happy we have something to watch again, but that figures to fade. No fans mean less fun. Rearranged playoffs after truncated seasons leave even worthy winners open to “asterisk” claims. (Say hey, Phil Jackson.) Playoffs in fan-less hubs mean no homecourt — or home-field, or home-ice — advantage, which is an immense thing in the postseason, unless you’re the Braves.
On the other hand: We might just like what we see. We’ve said for decades that regular seasons last too long. Here’s the alternative. Stuff everything into a blender and see what comes out. If that means an up-from-nowhere champ … well, the up-from-nowhere plot is 75 percent of the reason we love March Madness. What if Zion Williamson and the Pelicans, who mightn’t have qualified had the postseason begun in April, go on a July/August/September run? Would you watch? Sure you would.
We’ve been without team sports since March 12. Used to be, there were only two days of every year on which no major-league games were scheduled — the Monday before and the Wednesday after baseball’s All-Star game. (That has since changed, if only a bit.) Now we’re hoping to see something before the Fourth of July, on which there’ll be no AJC Peachtree Road Race to distract us. We’ve spent 12 weeks in a veritable desert, but think what might happen come September.
The NBA playoffs. Big-league baseball. The Kentucky Derby. The NHL playoffs. U.S. Open golf AND tennis. The MLS. Oh, and the NFL and college football. No matter how many TVs you have, you might want to budget for another two or three.
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