The Weird, Disturbing (and Comforting) Return of Pro Sports

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Finally, we thought: Sports.

After months of living in a state of paralytic dread, we could once again find distraction in a jump shot, a slap shot, a moon shot. We could set aside our fears and anxieties — our grief — for matters no more urgent than a man on second with two out and the count three-and-two.

Of course, the pandemic would keep our exuberant fandom in check. We would still not be able to sit cheek-by-jowl in a ballpark, spraying words, sauerkraut and who knows what else with every pitch. Or boo — in person! — the Houston Astros for the cheating that forever taints their 2017 championship. Or have the distinct honor of paying $11 for a beer at Citi Field.

But at least there would be sports from a safe distance. We could grab a cold one, lean back and lose ourselves in a televised game of ultimate and wonderful inconsequence.

If only we had the capacity of certain leaders for magical thinking.

Such tricks of the mind would allow us to take in the dystopian comedy of it all — the prerecorded crowd noises and the cardboard and video stand-ins for fans — without thinking too hard about the health implications for the athletes; without being nagged by thoughts of: Is this all right?

There is no question that sports have provided some diversion since they stutter-stepped back into our lives. That offensive put-back by Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers. That orange-and-white twirl of a 3-pointer by Sabrina Ionescu of the Liberty. That putt from another ZIP code by Dustin Johnson. That pair of home runs by Aaron Judge of the Yankees.

Nor is there any question that basketball, in particular, has insisted that we not forget matters even larger than a contagion. W.N.B.A. players have dedicated the season to Breonna Taylor, a Black medical worker who was killed by police during the execution of a no-knock warrant in Louisville. And N.B.A. players are wearing jerseys with words of righteousness. Black Lives Matter. Equality. Justice. Vote.

Still, our sports cable package for the summer of 2020 has been on the W & D Channel: Weird and Disturbing.

Remember when a mourning dove flew across a baseball diamond in 2001 — just as Randy Johnson unleashed one of his trademark 100-mile-per-hour fastballs? Ball met bird; bird ceased to exist.

Or when Rocky, the Denver Nuggets mascot, passed out while being lowered from the rafters as part of an over-the-top stunt in 2013? He would recover, but not before descending, seemingly lifeless, to the floor.

Well, multiply exploding bird and unconscious mascot by a thousand and it’s still nowhere close to matching the mind-boggling oddness of the 2020 sports world.

To begin with, hockey and basketball are not supposed to be “in season” in August. Nor are their games supposed to be played in a bio-dome (Please keep a safe social distance from the 1996 Pauly Shore “comedy” by the same name.).

It must be noted that these restricted venues for playoff contenders have their charms. For example, they have allowed games to be played in states of purity, free of T-shirt cannons, tossed seafood and the Knicks.

Ultimately, though, sports have often mirrored the unsettling and surreal that continues to be lived beyond the playing field.

Take the team benches in the Florida “bubble” where N.B.A. games are being held and where players are routinely tested before being allowed to compete. Each team has three rows of chairs separated by considerable space. Players not in the game often wear face masks. They even have their own Gatorade stations to ward against sharing drinks.

Then, with the wave of a coach’s hand, they are sent into the game to play “man to man,” breathing on and sweating against their opponents as though it was 2019 — old school.

Witnessing all this, virtually, are fans who have used a certain app that allows their images to appear to be cheering from the stands. But there is no uniformity in size, resulting in what looks like Humpty-Dumpty-size spectators propped in chairs beside those of normal proportions.

Once seen, it cannot be unseen.

The struggle to suspend disbelief is even harder when watching baseball.

Some of the empty ballparks have dispensed with pretense. At Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., television viewers are treated to a blue backdrop of empty seats bearing the Delta Air Lines logo, as if to remind us of a time when people actually flew to destinations; when people actually HAD destinations.

Citi Field, meanwhile, has filled seats with cardboard cutouts of Mets fans who have donated to charity the sum of $86. This is either a reference to the team’s last world championship — 34 long years ago — or a signal that this plague year should just be eighty-sixed from memory.

Watching a baseball broadcast, you can be lulled into thinking that nothing has changed, an illusion fostered in part by the canned crowd noise resounding in the background. But then come moments that jar.

When Yankees relief pitcher Zack Britton entered the game against the Philadelphia Phillies the other night, the broadcaster Michael Kay explained his appearance this way:

“He’s filling in for Aroldis Chapman, who was starting the season on the Covid-19 list. He’s back, he’s had two negative tests in a row, but they don’t want to rush him. They want him to face some batters. So Britton is the closer until Chapman gets back.”

The “Covid-19 list?”

Delivered so matter-of-factly, Kay’s report sounded as if Chapman had begun the season on the injured list, gone through rehab, and was now poised to rejoin the team. Only his “injury” was the coronavirus.

These are the moments that distract from the intended distractions.

In the last two weeks, 20 people associated with the Miami Marlins (including 18 players) and 13 people with the St. Louis Cardinals (including seven players) have tested positive for Covid-19. More than simply disrupting the scheduling of a truncated season, these positive tests have raised an acutely uncomfortable question:

Is all this worth it?

The other day, Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes failed to show up for a game, an aberration not entirely out of character for either Cespedes or the Mets. First came ridicule of Cespedes. Then came concern (Had he met harm?). Then came word that he had opted out of the 2020 season because of concerns about the coronavirus.

The skeptical among us might roll our eyes. We might note that Cespedes was batting just .161. We might say that he had walked out on his teammates. We might mutter that since he becomes a free agent at season’s end, this was nothing more than business.

Or we might raise our cold drinks in a toast to Cespedes for making a decision that felt right for him — then lean back and try in vain to get comfortable as we watch others play through our collective pain.

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