Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 30, 2020

A Very Long Road To Normal

It was not a good way to start the day. Bright and early Wednesday morning, there on the widescreen monitor the sports page of the New York Times website materialized at the click of a mouse. But everywhere one looked headline after headline told the same story. “Cooperstown: Wait Till Next Year?” was in the upper right corner, just above “Argentina and France Scrap Soccer Seasons.” “Summer Olympics in 2021? ‘Exceedingly Difficult’ Without a Coronavirus Vaccine” was the lengthy title in a large font beneath a photo of the familiar five ring symbol of the quadrennial games. Make that approximately quadrennial. All three stories above the fold, as one would describe it if holding an actual newspaper, yet all still yielding pride of place to an interview with the now world famous head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases underneath the headline “Some Sports May Have to Skip This Year, Fauci Says.”

One, two, three, four, a superfecta of reports – to borrow a term from horseracing, one of the very few sports still active – all informing readers of what has been both obvious and steadfastly avoided for some time now, namely the certainty that not just for several weeks in March and April, or until the weather warms, or for some sports but not others, but for this year and in some cases even beyond, all our games have been fundamentally altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Marketing departments for various leagues may still issue statements about seasons that have been “paused,” but the impact is not akin to an overly long commercial break or a replay review requiring repeated looks at multiple angles of video. Sports will return, but our games will not simply pick up where they left off.

By day’s end the first of those headlines had turned from speculation into fact. July’s scheduled induction of this year’s Baseball Hall of Fame class has been postponed until 2021. With former Yankee captain Derek Jeter headlining the group of four inductees, and the little hamlet of Cooperstown located just a few hours north of the big Stadium in the Bronx, Hall officials anticipated a record-breaking crowd in excess of the 80,000 that increased the town’s population more than fortyfold for the 2007 enshrinement of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn.

Good luck maintaining social distancing with that many people crammed into the upstate New York village. Hall of Fame weekend is an open, unticketed affair, from the parade of Hall members in front of throngs lining Cooperstown’s Main Street to the official ceremony on a stage set before a broad lawn on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center. In addition, many of the previous inductees, always as much of an attraction as the new honorees, are senior citizens at high risk by age alone should they contract the virus. The Hall’s decision to cancel the entire weekend and combine this year’s ceremony with 2021’s was the only responsible course of action. But that did not make the official announcement any less disappointing.

And of the four stories on that monitor Wednesday morning the potential postponement of the Hall of Fame ceremony was the least significant. Certainly the symbolic importance of Cooperstown is a small matter compared to not one but two nations abandoning an entire season of the world’s most popular sport, or the prospect of the already postponed Summer Olympics having to be written off as a lost cause, or the enormous hurdles standing in the way of the resumption of virtually all our games. As Dr. Anthony Fauci made clear in the Times interview, the road back to normalcy is both long and uncertain.

Yet the hunger for a return to live action is so great it’s easy to ignore that even the most optimistic proposals for a return of a sport are not about going back to business as usual. NASCAR promises to begin racing soon, but to do so by abandoning the original season schedule and for some period holding races at just two tracks, both within a short distance of the central North Carolina headquarters of most of its racing teams. The NBA talks about allowing players to begin using team facilities, but then pushes back the date almost before that announcement has time to be distributed. Baseball and hockey float one proposal after another for playing here, or there, or somewhere, sometime. Even golf, the sport most amenable to social distancing, has an announced schedule but no clear answer as to how to make tournaments safe for the players and several hundred support staff needed.

One can almost see the ghost of former baseball commissioner Ford Frick lurking in the corner, asterisk at the ready, not just for the Great Game but for sport in general.  For what we will have in 2020 are simulacrums of seasons, packaged and promoted as real, but ultimately imitations of the real thing.

That is now assured, for the one common point, be it in a firm plan or a working proposal or just some talking points, is that for some considerable time our games will be played without fans in attendance. At one level that might not seem so important; after all, most of us experience sports through television already. But that badly misjudges the importance of the crowd, the extent to which the raw emotion of the thousands in the seats impacts the players and colors the broadcast. For all the talk about the important role baseball played after 9/11, it was not the mere fact that there was a game at Shea Stadium soon after that horrid day. The power of the moment was in the full house on hand, and the cheers that echoed through the night.

As much as the immediate focus is, appropriately, on expanded testing, scientists tell us that the pandemic will not truly be over until an effective and safe vaccine has been developed, tested, and put into widespread use, and that such a day is still months away. That is the harsh but realistic timeframe for a true return to normal, though there is another measure of it that sports fans will understand. The strange days in which we now live will only be spoken about in the past tense when all three decks of the stands are once again full, and the roars of the faithful cheering their heroes roll across the playing field one after another, like breakers at the beach on a sunny summer’s day.


  1. Mike, You are still one of the very finest, most thoughtful and observant bloggers around. Stay safe, and I wish you all the best.

    • Thanks very much Bill. I hope you are doing well. Your knowledge of and insights into our favorite game are sorely missed.


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