Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 31, 2020

A Year To Forget Will Be Long Remembered

This year’s calendar turns at last to its final page. While the rituals of New Year’s Eve are always about looking forward, this year it is especially hard to imagine anyone will lament the passing of the old annum. It has been, by so many measures, a supremely grim year, one that has seemed to go on forever.

Those warm and sunny days in the stands at Steinbrenner Field, watching the Yankees prepare for another season, were those Spring Training games really just last March? The visit to Tampa was right when MLB closed clubhouses to the media, a first small step toward social distancing, and one that was not well received by those with press passes. Now that so much more is known, the decision seems laughable, since at the same time teams were happy to fill the stands at Spring Training ballparks with fans who skewed significantly older than the general population. Ah, but we were all so innocent in those long-ago days.

Less than a week later came the Thursday spent with friends, walking the Stadium Course at the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra during what turned out to be the last competitive round played on the PGA Tour for more than three months. It was the week sports stopped. Even as we wandered along the fairways, one by one the cell phone notifications popped up, announcing the shutdown of our games. By afternoon, the word was out that no spectators would be allowed on the course for the balance of the tournament. By the time we made the drive back to nearby St. Augustine Beach, there was no golf tournament, and soon enough no live sports at all.

In the weeks that followed some decidedly odd entertainments enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame – competitive marble racing was a personal favorite. But the clamor to bring back live games of our more familiar pastimes grew steadily, even as leagues strategized on how best to do so. Eventually the NBA and WNBA returned in locked down Florida locations. The NHL canceled the balance of its regular season and proceeded directly to the Stanley Cup Playoffs at two Canadian venues. After an ugly airing of grievances between players and owners, baseball ventured back onto the field with a truncated season and expanded playoffs, culminating in a neutral field World Series.

Other sports, from Major League Soccer to NASCAR to professional tennis and golf, also returned to action in due course. Finally football, which was thought to have the advantage of time with a season that wasn’t scheduled to begin until late summer, completed the list. And now the annual cycle has begun anew, with another NBA season underway even as college basketball attempts to navigate the pandemic minefield, though it isn’t clear whether the goal is to get to March Madness, or simply to prove the NCAA has gone mad, since COVID-19 rages hotter now than it did ten months ago. Money, the quest for which has driven so many of this year’s decisions about whether and how to play again, can do that.

Through it all most leagues and many of those who cover sports for a living have tried, often desperately so, to convince those of us who can’t be in the stands that what we are seeing is the game as we know it, that all is routine. So, we have piped in crowd noise, and cardboard cutouts sitting in our seats, and players telling us how wonderful it is to have 5,000 paying customers in a stadium with a capacity for ten times that number. In advance of this weekend’s CFP semifinal games pitting Alabama against Notre Dame and Clemson versus Ohio State, Tom Fornelli of CBS Sports even wrote, “In a year when so little has felt normal, I suppose we should be grateful to the College Football Playoff for providing some normalcy.”

Normalcy? A game that is being called the Rose Bowl will be played in Texas. The Ohio State lineup is a mystery because exactly which players will be cleared from quarantine remains unknown. There are many words one might use to describe 2020, but “normal” cannot possibly be on any sane person’s list.

And yet there have been moments that have at least reminded us why we fell in love with our games in the first place. LeBron James cementing his legacy among NBA immortals by carrying a third franchise to a championship. Naomi Osaka winning her third Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, even as she delivered a powerful message with the simple symbols of seven masks inscribed with seven names. Clayton Kershaw erasing years of postseason heartache and moving to the top of the list for career postseason strikeouts with two powerful starts in the Dodgers’ triumphant World Series. Molly Seidel overcoming an eating disorder and a long list of injuries to place second in her very first marathon, securing a spot on what is now the 2021 U.S. Olympic team. A new name for a team in Washington, and one on the way for another franchise in Cleveland. Amidst so much misery and loss, 2020 gave us a few moments.

What it largely did not give us was the chance to experience these firsthand, and for any sports fan, that was the most abnormal aspect of all. For we too are a part of the games. No, we do not play, though some of us dress as if we expect to be called upon to join the action at any moment. Our energy, our passion, our noise – spontaneous, not prerecorded – all are vital components of live sports. The turning of a calendar page will not restore that vitality to our games. The painful reality is that having that missing piece once again safely be a part of sports is still months away. But at least we know that if 2020 was the year it was taken from us, 2021 can be the year it returns. That is reason enough to say, “Happy New Year.”

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