July 23, 2020
By: Martin Fennelly
TAMPA, Fla.- Play ball!
Baseball is back, in all its 60-game, sound-deprived COVID or no glory. The first of the four major professional sports breaks from the gate tonight. The Yankees open this evening against the world champion Nationals. It will be so quiet you will be able to hear President Trump and Nancy Pelosi scream. Keep it down, you two.
Things get going at Tropicana Field on Friday, as the Rays open against the Blue Jays, an actual team from Canada, though not for the foreseeable COVID future as they search to play somewhere else. Maybe they could sleepover with the Rays and talk about their homeland.
“Why don’t you just stay here next year and we’ll go to Toronto?”
These Rays are not to be trusted!
Back to the lack of audience. Why, you will have to go all the way back to September to find the last Rays-Jays game played in such quiet. We will miss those 8,000 people, a lot.
Onward. The Rays have a lot of ideas to enhance the fan experience without fans for now, everything from cardboard cutouts of fans to be placed in seats to fan videos to fan national anthems and all sorts of fun things. The Rays have a lot of great ideas, as always, right up to owner Stu Sternberg’s asinine Montreal one.
Creating atmosphere will not be easy, as I saw last weekend when I watched the Yankees and Mets play exhibition games at empty Citi Field. It was nice to see players in the dugouts wearing masks. Very encouraging. Makes the rest of us feel better about baseball players and masks. It’s better than the president wearing one. Well, close.
Baseball is back, which means we can stop watching cornhole and Korean baseball, which I hardly ever confused with each other. Baseball is back. Quiet or not, it matters again. Sports matters again. It feels a little more normal in our country.
I saw an idea on-line and it grabbed me. Since there won’t be fans in the stands, someone suggested that home run balls be signed by the hitter and donated to area children’s hospitals. What a marvelous idea. What goodwill. What a way to bring it on back. The Rays should throw in tickets to games if fans are ever allowed back.
Hockey should be thinking the same way when it makes it back. Broken players’ sticks and pucks in empty should be given to hospitals, or fans in a lottery, along with tickets to future games. It’s a way of generating that We’re-in-this-together feeling.
You know what I’d really like to see. If the NFL gets through training camps and into exhibition football, everybody gets into preseason games for free, on the house if the house is not empty. I’ve been arguing that for a lifetime as I watch people pay good money, their money, for meaningless football, yeah, even if Tom Brady is involved.
Actually, I think the virus has done us all a service. The NFL is limiting this preseason to two games for each team, down by four, far down from the once ungodly six. Remember how worthless six weeks of preseason games were? I wish there no preseason games at all, and maybe this is the final nail in the exhibition coffins. Just go to team scrimmages in training camp. Why take a chance this year? Look, Bucs coach Bruce Arians was spot on when he said everyone is likely to get sick as it is, so why waste perfectly good practice time playing make-believe games. Name your 10 favorite preseason football games. Take your time. Answer: There are none.
Back to baseball, the test case. I think we are going to be so happy to see familiar faces again that in no time it will seem like old times. We missed these goofballs more than we think, and we are about to find out how much. Plus, the Rays have a real shot at making some noise, even if there is none, even though Yankees bats are already menacing. It’s Gerrit Cole against Max Scherzer in the Thursday night in Washington. What a matchup. If cardboard cutouts could talk ….
It’s baseball enough. Sports is back. With all due respect to MLS, which is kicking itself silly in Orlando, not far from the impending NBA season, this is one of the Big Four, close enough to touch, even if we can’t get inside the stadium. That is what TV is for. The Rays have always been a TV team.
Marlins owner and former Yankees great and Rays pest Derek Jeter thinks playing in silence, pumped-in crowd noise or no (Hey, Rays, try the Evan Longoria 162 walk-off soundtrack!) is going to require a greater focus from players. Agreed. It also requires greater focus from fans. You really are going to have to want to see these games.
Guess what? We will, more than we know.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, even if it doesn’t make the ballpark grow louder.
Whisper it far and wide.
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