Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 15, 2020

Sports In The Time Of Coronavirus

It is a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel come to life, with sports fans the leading characters. The settings are real, and events unfold in a familiar manner to a point, but then a sense of fantasy takes over. We know what is happening but can’t quite believe it. A journey into Marquez’s favored genre of magic realism, that is the best way to describe the experience of sitting in a front row seat as the sports world comes to a halt.

Steinbrenner Field sits just across the broad concrete ribbon that is Dale Mabry Highway from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The two sports venues, one the spring training headquarters of the New York Yankees and the other the home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are concrete and steel testaments to the value our culture places on our games. What fans making the walk from the parking area shared by the two facilities, across a pedestrian bridge over the busy thoroughfare and into the baseball stadium for a Tuesday afternoon exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays cannot know is that even sports are about to prove no match against the power of nature.

More than 9,700 fans fill Steinbrenner Field’s seats as a lineup of Yankees equally split between regulars and prospects takes the field in support of new ace Gerrit Cole. The pitcher who famously went to the old Stadium in the Bronx as a child with a sign proclaiming his eternal devotion to the pinstriped nine is but one of several reasons why New York is a popular preseason choice to represent the American League in the World Series at the other end of sports’ longest season. Cole isn’t perfect today, allowing one run over 3 1/3 frames, but seven of the ten Blue Jays he retires strike out, a number which reassures the cheering faithful that their team’s massive investment in the 29-year-old right-hander will soon be paying dividends.

As the game progresses conversation in the stands occasionally turns to the Coronavirus, by far the leading story in every newspaper and on every television screen. But for those basking in the afternoon sun the threat seems just that, a story to read or hear about, something happening in some other place. There is a sense of caution – hand sanitizer dispensers are scattered throughout the concourse that encircles the field – but for fans and players alike the disease is a distraction, not a danger.

Most of the regulars for both teams have finished their day’s work and some in the crowd have likewise headed home by the time the Yankees backup catcher Kyle Higashioka smacks a long home run to center field to tie the score at 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th. By the final frame the once-full stands are perhaps half that when Toronto’s reserves push across a pair of runs off reliever Ben Heller to make the final score 4-2 in favor of the visitors. But this is spring training, when individual game scores matter far less than steady progress on the important task of readying the roster for Opening Day, now just over two weeks away. Or so the remaining fans think as they head back over Dale Mabry Highway to their vehicles.

Two days later, a couple hundred miles to the northeast, and in far greater numbers, acolytes of a different sport stream into the green expanse of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra. It’s the opening round of the Players Championship, one of the premier events on the PGA Tour’s calendar, and the field is pitted against Pete Dye’s masterpiece of a golf course. Yet even amid the appearance of normality, with long lines of fans following their favorite players along the layout’s fairways, the world has shifted in just forty-eight hours. There is talk about a relative in some other part of the country who is being tested, or about a disrupted work schedule of a distant friend.

Still, the focus for the day is on golf, starting with the first groups to approach the course’s iconic 17th hole. With the Florida breeze no more than a zephyr, the island green is an easy target for the Tour pros. Like some fans at a car race there are those in the crowd who have come for the wrecks, waiting to see errant tee shots splash into the water, filling the scorecards of the world’s most talented golfers with scores worthy of a weekend hacker. They will go home disappointed, as ball after ball flies through the still air and finds safe purchase on the green.

Among those whose shots are cheered by the steadily growing crowd is Hideki Matsuyama, the five-time PGA Tour winner who just recently celebrated his 28th birthday. He cards a routine par on the hole, which amounts to an indifferent effort given the rest of his round. Matsuyama matches the course record with a 9-under par 63, posting eight birdies and an eagle to offset just a single dropped stroke in his eighteen holes.

But by the time Matsuyama has shot to the top of the leader board in early afternoon, the day has begun to turn surreal. Like fans everywhere, everyone in the crowd at TPC Sawgrass remains connected to the outside world. By text message and push notifications, the news starts to come in. First there is word of games in various sports to be played without spectators, but that half step quickly yields to more drastic efforts to stop the spread of Coronavirus. One after another college conferences cancel basketball tournaments that are just getting started, then the NCAA announces the cancellation of March Madness. Professional leagues soon follow suit, with the NBA and NHL shutting down, followed shortly by Major League Baseball. The PGA Tour briefly holds out, announcing that the Players will continue without spectators. But by the time fans at the Stadium Course return to their homes Thursday evening the tournament has been cancelled, and the shutdown of sports in North America is virtually complete.

Steinbrenner Field stands empty, the fairways of TPC Sawgrass are quiet. Only the benighted would argue that the dramatic steps taken over the past few days aren’t necessary, but that doesn’t make the sudden and complete absence of our games any less fantastical. We must do without the unifying balm of sports, from professional leagues to neighborhood pickup games, as we navigate uncertain and worrisome days. But in the real world, in contrast to a novel, magic realism has its limits. Marquez’s characters could stay on their riverboat, plying the waters of the Magdalena River “forever.” But the strange days of this pandemic are not permanent. Sports will return, and so will the fans.

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