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Driving Through the End of the World

Say one thing for me: I have truly dreadful timing.

On Monday morning, I left the state of Maine. Since I completed my graduate degree, I had been living there while (unsuccessfully) looking for work all over the United States. I felt like I was shooting arrows into the fog, hoping to hit something without knowing what I was shooting at. None of my arrows returned so much as a whimper. I felt myself losing motivation–not just in sending out job applications, but in other interests as well. I was atrophying, and I needed a change.

Enter, Los Angeles.

I had lived there two summers ago (you may remember, we had a big ole ballpark tour down there) with my good friend Brendan Walsh. I knew I loved the city, and I knew it would be good for me to be back in an area where I had friends. I had no idea what I would do there (and, truth be told, I still don’t), but I knew the change would be good for me. I knew it would be an adventure that would lead me somewhere, even if I didn’t know the terminal destination from the outset.

I started putting the pieces into motion, planning my travel days, arranging hotel reservations and meet-ups with friends across the country, as well as a quick stopover in Phoenix, Arizona to catch some Spring Training baseball. D-Day was set for Monday, March 8th.

Now that I look back on it, travelling the same week as a full moon AND a Friday the 13th was probably not my best decision, superstitions be damned.

When I left Monday morning, everything was running business as usual. There were concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in the Seattle area, and new New York City the virus seemed to largely be contained to New Rochelle. I, and seemingly everyone else in this country, figured that it was nothing to get worked up about.

Monday turned to Tuesday, and I developed a nasty sinus headache and congestion. No, it’s not coronavirus, and I already feel like I’ve gotten over it. But as I snuffled into my third box of Kleenex of the day while listening to the BBC provide updates on the increasingly fraught situation with the virus in Europe, I got more and more uneasy.

It was on Wednesday that the floodgates opened. When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, the NBA swiftly banned all fans from attending games, then shortly after suspended all the remaining games. The next day, other sports leagues followed suit. Every major collegiate athletic conference cancelled their end-of-season basketball tournaments (though a St. Johns–Creighton game inexplicably wasn’t cancelled until halftime in the Big East Tournament). The NCAA first said that no fans would be allowed to attend the March Madness tournament, then cancelled the tournament itself. The NHL suspended its season. MLB soon followed, cancelling the rest of Spring Training and delaying the start of the season by at least two weeks. European soccer leagues including UEFA, the Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga have all been suspended, as has MLS in the United States. The PGA Tour had been the only holdout, stubbornly insisting that the Player’s Championship would go ahead. By Thursday night, that too was cancelled. The back page for the New York Post simply called it “The Day the Sports World Stopped.”

In one week, the country has gone from business as usual to a nationwide panic. Grocery stores have been bought out of everything from toilet paper to frozen pasta. Avenues normally thronged with people now sit empty. The talk on every street is when the eventual quarantine order is going to be issued. We have lost our collective minds, and the rapidity with which we’ve descended into madness has given the past few days a surreal quality, both equal parts absurdist and nihilist, like the lost sketches of a Philip K. Dick short story.

It’s easy enough for me to ignore the descent into madness as I sit in relative safety behind the wheel of my car. But my mind keeps playing out scenarios, some realistic and some fantastical. What if they shut the California border? What if I contract the virus on my trip out west? What if the city is quarantined after I arrive? What if no company is interested in hiring new employees until the coronavirus pandemic is under control?

If the world went this crazy this fast, what on Earth is it going to look like when I arrive in California next week?

As much as these thoughts have kept me up at night, I know they pale in comparison to other concerns. People are going to lose their lives in this pandemic. Some already have. Others are going to be told to stay home without pay, left to wonder how they’ll ever manage to make the rent this month. Small businesses reliant on tourism and foot traffic are going to be forced to close due to social isolation practices. As surreal as this whole week has been, the consequences of what is happening right now will be all too real for some.

The cancellation of the sporting world is, of course, a trivial matter compared with the very real issues of life and death. But the loss of sports for the foreseeable future is a very meaningful part of the coronavirus story, and not solely out of concern for the loss of wages for stadium workers, support staff, and Minor League ballplayers. Sports helps us through catastrophe. It can’t save lives, or bring back those we’ve lost, nor can it replace a paycheck or pay for the groceries or the utility bill. But it can, for a moment at least, give us something to cheer for and allow us to feel that everything is going to be alright.

On September 21, 2001, the New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves in the first sporting event played in New York City since the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Late in the game, with the Mets trailing 2-1, Mike Piazza launched a fastball high into the dark skies above New York City and over the centerfield fence. The crack of Piazza’s bat released a wave of pent-up emotion among New Yorkers in the stands and among Americans around the country watching at home. Amidst great tragedy, Mike Piazza and the New York Mets allowed us to have a moment where we could cheer, and we could hope.

In the spring of 2013, a terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon left three dead and over 200 injured. In the first game played at Fenway after the attack, David Ortiz spoke to the crowd and delivered his now-famous remark, “This is our fucking city; nobody [is] gonna dictate our freedom. Stay strong.” The speech turned into a rallying cry, and six months later, Boston delivered a World Series Championship to a grieving city.

Sports gives us the space we need to heal. It allows us those moments of joy, of hope, of cheering for something even when we’ve lost everything. It gives fans the opportunity to come together as a community, to share their grief borne from tragedy and their joy in finding a way to escape it.

But what can we do when the very threat we face demands that we do not come together, but rather that we stay apart? In the face of such a threat, public gatherings must be sacrificed in the name of public health. That, sadly, includes sporting events.

You’ll hear no criticisms from me on those decisions. The most important thing right now is to keep people safe, and large-scale public gatherings during a pandemic are not conducive to that end. But I still do bemoan the loss of sports, and not selfishly because I was really excited to attend Spring Training next week. In losing sports, we’ve lost one of the main ways that we cope with catastrophe.

This is going to get worse before it gets better. Over the coming weeks, we are going to see the worst of humanity. We’ve already seen fistfights break out over rolls of toilet paper in supermarkets. But, hopefully, as we struggle through this pandemic, we see the best of humanity as well. We can help those who need assistance, reach out to friends to share our love with them, and do our part to make the world a healthier and kinder place.

I’m in New Orleans as I write this. Yesterday, I thought about turning around, driving back to Maine, and waiting for this whole thing to blow over. I chose instead to keep driving, to keep moving forward. I don’t know what’s going to be waiting for me in California. I don’t know how this coronavirus story is going to play out. But I do know that when it’s safe to reconvene athletic events, sports are going to be there to help us pick of the pieces of whatever we have left.

Until then, be safe, be healthy, and be kind.

Scott Wagner View All

Scott is the guy you see at the ballpark with a loaded hot dog in one hand and a marked-up scorecard in the other. He’s been following baseball since 2006, when his beloved Tigers made the World Series. Scott is an expert in baseball film trivia, a connoisseur of ballpark food, and a firm believer that pitchers should have to bat (I’m looking at you, Bartolo Colon).

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