Tom Oates: Loss of Brewers an easy sacrifice in fight against COVID-19 pandemic

Tom Oates: Loss of Brewers an easy sacrifice in fight against COVID-19 pandemic

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One by one, the sporting events I most enjoy are falling victim to the ongoing battle with the coronavirus pandemic.

My favorite weekend of the year — the upset-riddled first and second rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament — came and went last week without so much as a ball being bounced.

My favorite day of the year — the Milwaukee Brewers’ home opener — was scheduled for Thursday at Miller Park, but instead of playing host to the loathsome Chicago Cubs, the stadium that saved baseball in Milwaukee will sit empty.

No players, no fans, no game and no assurances there will even be a baseball season in 2020.

Like many of you, I’m saddened by that. It’s OK to be saddened by that, too.

Please don’t misunderstand that last sentence. There will be no whining here over the absence of the games and events that entertain us, certainly not while a national catastrophe unfolds around us. On a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of importance in our virus-ravaged country right now, sports is a 1.

It would be a -1 except spectator sports in general and baseball in particular serve useful functions, even in times like these. They provide us with an entertaining diversion from the daily grind that sometimes consumes us. They have become big business nationally and have the ability to spur local economies as well. Mostly, though, they provide us with a shared experience that facilitates communication and pulls us together like few things can.

Among all sports, baseball is special in that regard.

It’s most endearing and enduring quality is its timing. The start of the baseball season coincides with the start of spring and the two have much in common. Whether they follow a dreary winter or a dreadful season, both inspire a palpable sense of rebirth and a hope and belief that better days are ahead. I don’t have to tell you that we all need a little bit of that right now.

In most years, the talk on Opening Day would focus on the Brewers and the 162-game season about to the played.

We would be hoping, as we do every year, that the Brewers have enough starting pitching. We would be hoping Christian Yelich and Keston Hiura hit well enough to drive an offense that might have platoons everywhere else. We would be hoping Corey Knebel returns from elbow surgery and teams with Josh Hader to make the bullpen special once again. And we would be hoping this is another one of those seasons where the experts predict the Brewers didn’t do enough to improve themselves and yet manager Craig Counsell somehow squeezes a playoff berth out of an allegedly substandard roster.

Whether we ever get those answers is up in the air right now. Spring training was shut down several weeks ago and the regular season has been suspended indefinitely.

Major League Baseball hasn’t publicly revealed any plans it has for the season or even if there will be a season. At this point, about the best we can hope for is an abbreviated season.

Even if the corner is turned on the spread of coronavirus in every part of the nation — and that’s a big if — the most likely scenario for baseball might be an 81-game season starting around July 1. The players are working out on their own as best they can, but they’ll need at least a month of team workouts and exhibition games to get ready once they reconvene, making a June 1 start the most optimistic estimate for a possible restart. Even if teams do return to the field, it seems unlikely large gatherings will be allowed in stadiums until the coronavirus threat is completely extinguished.

Now that it is apparent the season will be dramatically altered, people are offering up plans to save it. Player agent Scott Boras proposed a 162-game season, but it would include tons of doubleheaders, playoff games until Dec. 26 and many late-season games being played at neutral sites. In other words, it has no chance.

Besides, as we have discovered since the sports world abruptly shut down two weeks ago, there is no substitute for the real thing.

During the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, people offered up all sorts of diversions. They took simulated brackets and played out the tournament, sometimes by the so-called experts, sometimes by online voting, sometimes by statistically generated power rankings. One such venture even declared the University of Wisconsin the national champion, leading to T-shirts and a “One Shining Moment” video being produced to commemorate the, um, title.

Networks began airing past games from the NFL, NBA and major college sports. While I thoroughly enjoyed the reminder of just how good Sam Dekker was during UW’s six-game tournament run in 2015, how advanced Russell Wilson was during his one season as quarterback of the Badgers and how Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s best player the minute he stepped on the court as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks, memories are not enough to sustain us.

Games are what sustain us and there is nothing that quite matches the sights and sounds of Opening Day and the hope it inspires. The fact that we won’t experience that Thursday is a reminder that we all must sacrifice, we all must do our part to control the spread of the coronavirus. If we do, perhaps we can still have an Opening Day in 2020.


Unanswered questions for the Brewers

Contact Tom Oates

at toates@madison.com.

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