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I ATTENDED TWO BALLGAMES ... AND FELT WHAT, EXACTLY?
Rather than suffer Ugly American guilt about sitting in stadiums as a pandemic crushes the world, maybe we should stay home and watch sports on TV, which is an easier experience anyway.
Because I am American, I am inherently selfish and arrogant. And because I’m inherently selfish and arrogant, I’ve sat in the stands for two Major League Baseball games in recent days, counterintuitive to the headlines. Should I care that India and South America continue to be crushed by the coronavirus, that the number of new cases worldwide is surging toward one million a day?
Should I care that Oregon is restoring restrictions, concerned that variants are causing outbreaks among violently ill young people? Should I care that herd immunity isn’t happening in America, that vaccine resistance remains a crisis in rural areas and among Blacks and Latinos in urban areas? What about the millions who don’t want second doses?
``”What I can’t do is bring back someone’s life lost to this virus,’’ Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said. “That’s why, hard as this is, we must act immediately. This is truly a race between the variants and the vaccines.’’
As a human being, yes, I should care deeply … and do care deeply. But as a sports aficionado in the U.S. — where Mike Greenberg shrieked like a carnival barker during the NFL Draft, Clay Travis denounces mask-wearers as ``pathetic sheep’’ and broadcast executives blindly push gambling to keep their kids in the best private schools — I’m supposed to convene gleefully among 9,207 at Angel Stadium and bask in so-called renewed normalcy, especially when Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani drill home runs past my first-base seat.
A week later, I am supposed to gallop into Dodger Stadium and marvel at the new center-field plaza, including a ``Blue Heaven on Earth’’ welcome sign straight out of Disneyland. Then I’m supposed to chomp into a Dodger Dog no longer manufactured by Farmer John — a civic calamity in southern California — but still blessed with char marks from the grill, which is all that counts no matter who makes the sausage. When Clayton Kershaw shuts down the Reds, I am expected to stand with 15,051 others and spray saliva particles into the air, just across the parking lot from one of the nation’s largest vaccination sites.
Because I am American and my arm has been jabbed twice, I am required to be thrilled by it all, shouting, “Sports is back!’’ while engaged in group hugs with strangers. I should be dressed in my frilliest Gucci at the Kentucky Derby, with malcontent Aaron Rodgers and top-hatted Tom Brady and 45,000 others, watching Essential Quality finish fourth to Bob Baffert’s Medina Sprint despite the human rights abuses of owner Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum — who, per a judge’s ruling in England, plotted the abduction of two of his adult daughters. I should be partying with Bernie Kosar and the Draft mobs in Cleveland, 100,000-plus strong. I should be preparing to join 135,000 race fans at the Indianapolis 500. I should be watching with the boys at the sports bar in Santa Monica as the Lakers attempt to repeat. I should be Sports Jay, as always.
Instead, I’m looking around at thousands of empty seats in both ballparks, wondering why I’m here amid faint cheers and disproportionately loud music.
I’m also wondering why it’s business as usual when the fine print of my e-ticket suggests otherwise: “WARNING — ASSUMPTION OF RISK. COVID-19 IS AN EXTREMELY CONTAGIOUS DISEASE THAT CAN LEAD TO SEVERE ILLNESS AND DEATH. AN INHERENT RISK OF EXPOSURE TO COVID-19 EXISTS IN ANY PUBLIC PLACE REGARDLESS OF PRECAUTIONS THAT MAY BE TAKEN. THE HOLDER AGREES TO (1) ASSUME ALL RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH COVID-19 AND OTHER COMMUNICABLE DISEASES, AND (2) COMPLY WITH ALL RELATED HEALTH & SAFETY POLICIES OF THE DODGERS AND DODGER STADIUM.’’
Meaning: If you get sick, or die, you can’t sue the Dodgers or MLB. But, hey, have you checked out the new legends exhibit and Shake Shack stand?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy and savor sports. If anything, a pandemic whetted my appetite for the grist and inspired me to resume writing columns four times a week. The problem is this brainwashing syndrome. You know: Being told by the sports industry — leagues and media alike — that I’m a (pick one) coward, liberal, sheep or pussy if I think it’s narrow-minded and insensitive to re-hurl ourselves into the swirl without feeling anxious about the planet. Such greedy demands not only lack perspective and savvy, they prioritize the ongoing sports money-grab and remind me of what I always pillory about the clamor surrounding our fun and games — the idiots who don’t grasp the bigger world beyond ballparks, arenas, social media, ESPN, WFAN and DraftKings.
Now hear this: The pandemic is not over and might not be over for years. Yet King Sports acts as if it has won the Infectious Disease Super Bowl, carrying on under the guise of entertainment-as-healing when the sole, unabashed purpose is to drive revenues. The NFL, feeling heady after filling the pockets of team owners with $113 billion in new broadcast money, plans on opening all stadiums at full capacity in a few months. “All of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back,’’ said commissioner Roger Goodell. The Atlanta Braves are untying all 41,084 seats at Truist Park this week, as MLB pushes for a summer of large crowds throughout both leagues — though who wants to watch a sport where batters hit a record-low .232 in April and teams averaged only 7.63 hits ? “I have great concern that our sport has turned into a lack of offense — and that the strikeout-homer-walk `Three True Outcomes’ is not our best entertainment product," said Detroit manager AJ Hinch, who always could have his hitters electronically steal signs and bang on drums in the tunnel, as he did in Houston.
And on our college campuses, where COVID-19 remains a firestorm? LSU, possibly the most corrupt of football programs, says spectators won’t need masks inside the stadium or beforehand in the all-important tailgate culture. “This,’’ said athletic director Scott Woodward, “``is another positive step for us as a campus and community.’’
The coronavirus is just the flu, after all. Clay Travis said so. Geaux Tigers!
At least America is comforted by a progressive inoculation pace. Imagine living in Japan — where just 1.4 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in a health care emergency — and knowing the International Olympic Committee carries more political weight than the government with the Summer Games in full-go mode. Every poll favors cancellation, as the Japanese people worry that their health — and that of participating athletes, most not vaccinated — will be jeopardized as COVID-19 cases spike. But prime minister Yoshihide Suga has no interest in halting the Games when $25 billion is on the line, NBC is airing Olympics promos in heavy rotation and IOC president Thomas Bach is running the country.
“The IOC has the authority to decide, and the IOC has already decided to hold the Tokyo Olympics,’’ Suga said.
To which Bach added, “Look at the Augusta Masters,” trying to assuage the nervous masses by name-dropping their national hero, 2021 champion Hideki Matsuyama. Never mind that a major golf tournament involves fewer than 100 players in an outdoor, socially distanced event, while these Olympics would host 11,000 athletes from 200-plus countries in 42 venues. Bach prefers to ignore the dangers and lather the natives, praising the ‘``great resilience and spirit of the Japanese people’’ before adding, “(They) have demonstrated perseverance throughout their history, and it's only because of this ability of the Japanese people to overcome adversity that these Olympic Games under these very difficult circumstances are possible.’’ He was appropriately pummeled on social media, having mixed World War II and last decade’s tsunami with his desire to cash in.
Keep calling me a Chicken Little, as you have. But as Goodell hailed his 2020 season as a rousing success, a scientific journal known as The Lancet was publishing data that blamed pockets of virus outbreaks in NFL cities on large stadium throngs, even as the NFL insists it hosted 1.2 million fans safely last season. Funny how the league only releases upbeat findings when trying to propagandize us. As epidemiologists howled in mortified protest, the NFL marched on with its usual, three-day Draft extravaganza over the weekend, as if all is well in the world.
“``We have to do this,” said Jon Barker, who oversees the league’s live event productions. “``We need to get people out and back to live events and to experience things like this. The draft is one of those great events that can bring everybody together and do that.”
As I watched my two ballgames and ate my hot dogs (there also is an Angel Dog), I realized what I’d learned the last 14 months: People don’t have to be at the scene anymore. Great seats and all, I still couldn’t enjoy a game in person the way I can at home, where admission and parking are free, a tidy bathroom is just down the hall, and I can eat and drink inexpensively without waiting in line. There is no reason to attend another football game when it’s the ultimate TV sport. Baseball remains a convivial event in person, but any focus on the game itself is best achieved at home. The NBA is fun at home or in the lower bowl, the latter only for a king’s ransom. From a few hundred feet away, would you have enjoyed the Masters or the Derby as much on site as you did in your personal viewing room?
For this shift inward, give the broadcast networks props. Challenged by a pandemic, they’ve succeeded in maximizing the at-home live experience, to the point fans will think twice about spending money and attending games. Having consumed sports on TV since last summer, I’ve been able to block out COVID considerations in the new calendar year. Only when I venture to ballparks, for the first time as a non-working spectator, do I feel guilty about the continuing global massacre.
It sounds blasphemous, I know, but I’ll ask again: Why go? If sports is best enjoyed on a big screen, and not among the masses in a confined setting, then why waste time, money and energy? Let the leagues figure out how to keep the turnstiles spinning and the Dodger Dogs devoured.
Just stay home.
Nike can use it as a new slogan.
Jay Mariotti, called “``the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.