WAITING GAME

Everyone is thinking it, we just need to bite the bullet

Composite image by Brandon Strange.

I certainly understand – and agree with – players who are refusing to go to Orlando to restart this NBA season interruptus. What I don't get is, why baseball is so hot to get a shortened, bizarre season with weird rule changes underway. And why not push the NFL and college football back to 2021, when there may be a vaccine for COVID-19 or at least a better handle on the pandemic?

When hopefully sports can pick up, where they left off, safely with stands filled with cheering fans.

Sports are dangerous in 2020. Coronavirus is a highly contagious, dangerous disease that we still know very little about. Testing is unreliable, with possible false negatives, and results are taking an extra-long time to come back. Six NBA training facilities have shut down because players and staff are testing positive. A bubble isn't 100-percent guaranteed to keep players safe from catching COVID-19. I hear the NBA say the bubble in Orlando will be "as safe as possible." That's not very comforting … "as possible."

Baseball is our most statistic-driven sport. With a season shortened to an unnatural 60 games, and teams' schedules based more on geography than rivalry, fans won't – or shouldn't – take 2020 seriously. What if a player hits .400 for the 60-game season, like when Chipper Jones was hitting .408 after 60 games in 2008? Would anybody accept that a player in 2020, not Ted Williams in 1941, is the last player to top .400 for a season? How will it look if a starting pitcher, who gets only 10 starts the whole season to protect his arm, wins the Cy Young Award with a 7-3 record? Every plate appearance, every pitch thrown, will have a big fat, silly asterisk attached to it.

The Astros won't be traveling to New York to face the Yankees and their angry fans. The current plan has no fans anywhere. You won't hear "Get your peanuts" and "kill the ump" and, depending on the city, "cheaters!" Baseball is a game that thrives on sound as much as images. Baseball will be a silent movie in 2020.

Unless you're LeBron James chasing Michael Jordan's six NBA titles, or the Freak going for back-to-back MVP trophies, or James Harden and Russell Westbrook putting an exclamation point on their Hall of Fame careers, what's to be gained by entering a boring, claustrophobic bubble to complete the 2020 NBA season?

You don't have to be a risk-management expert like George Costanza to know resumption of the NBA season is fraught with danger. San Antonio Spurs star DeMar DeRozan is 30 years old and can be an unrestricted free agent next season. The Spurs currently are 27-36, on the outside looking in for an unlikely playoff spot. DeRozan already has been paid $20 million of his $27.8 million salary for this season. He is on Forbes list of the 100 highest-paid athletes in America. He could be in line for another huge-money contract next year. So he's going to go to Orlando, probably to play eight meaningless games, and risk an injury that could cost him a long-term max contract in a few months? DeRozan already has made $121 million over his 10-year career. He doesn't need to travel to Orlando, live in a social experiment environment, to pick up a few measly millions. For what, for the Spurs to clinch a non-playoff spot?

DeRozan, and every other player, isn't just risking a career-ending knee or Achilles injury. We don't know everything about the long-term health consequences of COVID-19. The disease could leave behind lifelong kidney problems or reduced lung capacity. Basketball is a sport that requires ultimate cardio conditioning. Most NBA players will be eligible for free agency, and more and more money, in the next few years. The NBA says no player will be punished if he decides to pass on Orlando. I'd sit out Disney for sure. Pro sports stars are used to living privileged, posh lives. They live in mansions and drive luxury cars and eat in private rooms at the best restaurants. They're going to have trouble cooped up in hotels with guards at the doors to keep them inside. You really think Mrs. Star Athlete isn't going to the salon for the next four months.? I know "normal" women who can't go two weeks without getting their toes done.

I talked with a high school football coach recently. He said football is the perfect petri dish for spreading COVID. We do know that the No. 1 way to spread coronavirus is for an infected person to cough or breath on other people. That's the whole idea behind social distancing and wearing masks. We've all seen football games played in cold weather, where you see the cold, misting breath of opposing lineman collide only inches apart. Then the players huddle up with their helmets practically touching. Prominent college coaches reportedly are OK with delaying the season until spring. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley describes a spring season as "very doable." So why not "doable" it?

A few baseball teams, including the Houston Astros, had to cancel practice this week because there was an unexpected delay in getting back players' coronavirus test results. Is this any way to run a major sport? Mike Trout, the best player in baseball, isn't sure he will play the 2020 season. Trout and his wife are expecting their first child. Other stars like Kris Bryant and Buster Posey aren't confident that their health will be protected if they play this year. David Price and more have flat out said no to 2020. One pro soccer team had to quit the MLS season because so many of its players have tested positive for coronavirus. Boston Celtics star Gordon Hayward's wife is pregnant. Hayward already has promised to leave the Orlando bubble when his fourth child is born in September. NBA players are physically fit young men. Many have wives and girlfriends, sometimes both. It's not natural, certainly not fun, for players to enter a biosphere without their partners.

And for what? To play games without fans, with fake crowd noise pumped into arenas to simulate "real game" conditions in crunch time? The games will be televised, possibly on tape delay because some players will be mic'd up and the league doesn't want fans at home to hear naughty language? Eavesdropping on what really is said on the court and during timeouts may be the best part of televising these games. And they're taking that away from us, too?

A big part of 2020 already is a washout. Sports, athletes and fans, should wait until it's safe to come out and play.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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