Just the other day, a friend joyfully told me he had watched his first live sporting event since mid-March.
Turns out it was the American Cornhole League's Cornhole Mania tournament on ESPN. Probably aired just before a Korean Baseball League game.
So that's it, bag toss and bad Class AA baseball are what us home-bound sports fans are reduced to watching on television while we do our part to help our nation defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thank heaven for "The Last Dance," the riveting ESPN miniseries about the final season of the Michael Jordan era with the Chicago Bulls. Its through-the-roof ratings tell you how desperate fans are for something fresh to watch. Same thing with the three-day NFL draft, which set viewing records in April.
As our nation's shutdown heads toward its third month, people need diversions such as sports more than ever, which is why the story that Major League Baseball owners are proposing an 82-game season to start July 4 offered a ray of hope for professional sports fans (sorry, college sports is an entirely different situation).
Before fans get something to watch, though, the coronavirus outbreak must continue to abate and the owners and players must reach an agreement, which is never a slam dunk given their contentious relationship over the years. Still, talk of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training for a second time this year certainly is refreshing.
Of course, health and safety concerns for all involved must be the highest priority in any return to action. But if officials from MLB — along with the NBA, NHL and NFL — can figure out how to play the games safely, they would be a welcome relief for the millions of fans who are bored and increasingly restless while quarantined at home.
The resumption of sports will come at a price, however. It appears likely games will be played without fans all summer and quite possibly during the fall. It won't be sports as we know it, but at least there will be live action to watch on TV, which will make the owners and their network partners happier.
Not happy, mind you, but happier because at least they'll have a product to sell and some revenue coming in. And with a captive audience sitting at home, ratings will be high.
There is one thing for fans to keep in mind, however. They'll have to accept the fact that everything that happens in the present will carry an asterisk into the future. Even if MLB comes back and the NBA and NHL resume their seasons, nothing will be the same. It won't be sports as we know it. There will be empty stadiums, neutral sites, shortened seasons, new divisional setups and altered playoff formats, all of which will cause purists to discount their authenticity.
My advice? Don't worry about any of that.
Seasons in every major professional sport have been shortened or even ended by work stoppages in the past and everyone has lived to tell about it. Most of the asterisks attached to those seasons have disappeared into history and the few seasons that were lost — the baseball playoffs in 1994 and the entire NHL season in 2004-05 — didn't do permanent damage to the sports.
Indeed, the first time the Milwaukee Brewers made the MLB playoffs was in 1981. A players' strike from June 11 to Aug. 10 caused MLB to split that season into halves and play about 107 games per team. The Brewers were the second-half champions of the American League East and met the first-half champion New York Yankees in a best-of-five playoff for the division title. The Brewers lost in five games, but the season will forever be remembered as the first time they made the postseason.
Still, there will be plenty of unintended consequences if and when pro sports return this year. The baseball owners' proposal calls for 80 fewer games than usual, more interleague play, reduced travel, neutral-site games, universal use of the designated hitter and expanded playoffs. All would contribute to a dramatically altered playing field in baseball.
Other sports would have to make alterations as well. It seems likely, for instance, the NBA and NHL, should they resume, will go directly to the playoffs, creating the likelihood of markedly uneven play because no team will be in playoff form.
Speaking of unintended consequences, former University of Wisconsin and Green Bay Packers lineman Mark Tauscher came up with a great example on his radio show recently. Let's say the NFL starts its season on schedule but without fans. Two of the Packers' first three games are at Minnesota and New Orleans, domed stadiums where the extreme noise makes it difficult for offensive players to communicate. It would benefit the Packers immeasurably if they could play those two games without fans in the seats.
There is stirring on other pro sports fronts as well. The NASCAR Cup Series will resume — minus fans — with a race Sunday at Darlington. The PGA Tour is scheduled to reopen June 11-14, also without spectators.
The powers-that-be in baseball, basketball, hockey and football will be watching those events closely. And if they junk up their own seasons a bit when they do return to play, so what? It might not be sports as we know it, but sit back and enjoy the view. After all, we have learned it's better than the alternative.