FORT MYERS, Fla. — It is a deadly global threat that has nothing to do with sports. And yet in two days, it has become one of the biggest sports stories of all time.
It is breathless and ever-changing. It moves at warp speed toward . . . the unknown.
And it feels fruitless to say or write anything about it because by the time you read these words, so much will have changed. There is simply no way to keep up with the impact of the coronavirus on our North American sports leagues, teams, and tours.
Our nation’s capital is basically shut down. Kids are staying home from school. College students have been ordered to evacuate. Hospitals are preparing for what could be a dangerous and unmanageable surge. Broadway is dark. Disneyland is shutting down Saturday. Whole Foods has been rendered less than whole.
And sports fans of America are going to have to watch ESPN “30 for 30” documentaries and grainy World Series highlight reels to satisfy their daily fix. North American sports has hit the pause button. No more games. Not for a while, anyway.
Before this week, coronavirus felt like a problem plaguing China and Europe. It did not feel like our problem.
Everything changed Wednesday. The NCAA announced that its March Madness tournament would be played in empty gyms. That triggered an avalanche of cancellations that has left us with virtually no sports, no leagues, and no competition for the indefinite future.
The first few announcements seemed radical. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors said they wouldn’t be able to have fans at home games. Then the NHL’s San Jose Sharks did the same. We learned that baseball’s Seattle Mariners would not be able to have fans for their home opener. Multiple NCAA conference basketball tournaments followed suit.
Early Wednesday evening in Oklahoma City, there was a frightening moment when a team doctor rushed on the court before the Thunder and Jazz tipped off. The doctor informed officials that a Jazz player had tested positive for the coronavirus. Suddenly, the game was postponed. Fans were told that they were safe but they had to go home.
We got word that Jazz center Rudy Gobert was the one who’d tested positive. Here in Boston, that frightened some folks who’d interacted with Gobert when the Jazz were at TD Garden last Friday night. Celtics players shifted into self-quarantine.
Our president, more somber and subdued than we have ever seen him, addressed the nation at 9 p.m. and announced, among many other things, that there would be no more flights coming here from Europe after midnight Friday. Then it was learned that the NBA was suspending its season indefinitely. An NBA crowd in Sacramento was sent home right at tipoff. Same as in Oklahoma City.
Welcome to the new world of no sports.
When we woke up Thursday, there was more of the same. One by one, every sport and event was erased.
The Red Sox had a scheduled off day at JetBlue Park Thursday. Most of the regulars took their vacation day, but Nate Eovaldi and Brandon Workman came to Fenway South to pitch in a simulated game. While they were pitching, it was learned that a second Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, had tested positive. This was whopping news.
After his five innings in the empty stadium, we asked Eovaldi if this threat felt “more real” in the wake of the news about the Jazz players.
"Yeah, 100 percent,'' said the righty.
"Absolutely,'' added Sox manager Ron Roenicke. "When you’ve got this many players, not just major leaguers, but minor leaguers and you’ve got 30 teams. I hope nobody gets it, but you would think there’s probably a pretty good chance.''
Without doubt, the diagnosis of Gobert and Mitchell was the turning point in the two days of turmoil.
“The minute I read that one of the players tested positive, I thought that was the beginning of the end,” University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma told ESPN.
As the afternoon unfolded, leagues and tournaments tumbled. The NHL and MLS followed the lead of the NBA. The Big Ten, the ACC, the SEC, and the Pac-10 all canceled their basketball conference tourneys.
One crazy outlier, the Big East, allowed Creighton and St John’s to play one half of basketball, then sent everybody home. In all, 14 conference tourneys were canceled.
Just after 4 p.m., the NCAA pulled the plug on the Big Dance.
Curiously, a handful of Thursday Grapefruit League games with 1 p.m. starting times were played. Not the Orioles-Twins game at Hammond Stadium scheduled for 6 p.m. in Fort Myers. The Orioles bus left Sarasota early Thursday afternoon, but turned around and came back as everyone waited for MLB to officially announce that spring training is over.
At 3:09, MLB announced that spring training had been canceled and that the opening of the baseball season (the Sox were scheduled to be in Toronto March 26) will be delayed by at least two weeks.
MLB’s press release stated, "Guidance related to daily operations and workouts will be relayed to Clubs in the coming days.''
We are not certain what that exactly means. Even without games, fans, and media, player safety would likely be compromised if big league teams continued to bring their ballplayers together in the workplace.
Professional athletes will get the bulk of attention in this time of sports darkness, but their temporary time on the shelf pales in comparison with college and high school athletes, many of whom will never have a chance to fulfill goals of tournament play or coveted senior seasons. Massachusetts on Thursday canceled the high school basketball and hockey state championship games scheduled for this weekend.
Nate Eovaldi will have many more chances to pitch for the Boston Red Sox. The same cannot be said for an Ivy League basketballer planning on playing in the NCAA Tournament, or a Massachusetts high school lacrosse player who just lost his or her senior year.
The coronavirus never sleeps, but our games are in for a big timeout.