Thursday, March 12, 2020, will be remembered as the day sports closed up shop. It is the prudent, smart, no-brainer move to contain this infectious virus. They will start again, perhaps in a few weeks, perhaps a few months. There is too much money and importance for them not to continue at some point. But on Thursday, fans felt a hollow, haunting breeze, and are all wondering what this void will be like. The NBA announced its season was suspended on Wednesday, and over the next 24 hours the rest of the sports world acquiesced to the coronavirus. The NHL, all the major conference tournaments for college basketball, March Madness, MLS, one by one, falling like dominos.
So arriving at Roger Dean Stadium on Thursday had a truly strange backdrop. It was like watching your favorite team after they were already eliminated from the playoffs, but still playing out the string. Spring training games were scheduled to be played, but everyone knew MLB would soon follow the lead of all the other leagues. I had flown down to Florida for my annual Grapefruit League trip Wednesday. It's an opportunity every spring to get together with my high school friends, escape the end of another cold, dark winter and jump-start ourselves with some baseball.
For years, it's been a perfect opportunity to escape to a sunnier, happier place. But this year was totally different. Newark Airport was notably emptier than normal; the security gates had only a few people in line. My flight is normally sold out, stuffed with families, students and adults heading for Spring Break and warm weather. My flight was only 75 percent full. The two people who sat next to me did not know one another, but quickly bonded over sanitizing each other's seats and trays with Clorox wipes.
Wednesday, the sky fell. Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert had contracted the Coronavirus. The news became more panicked by the hour. The NBA halted. Travel to Europe was grounded. The country was watching a slow-motion train wreck, and sports was in the middle of it. On Thursday morning, I texted my contact at the Cardinals spring training complex. Was the game still on? There were rumors flying throughout the morning MLB was about to cancel the rest of spring training. "Yes. On" was the text I got back.
Before leaving the house, we watched every basketball conference in succession cancel its tourneys. Commissioners were on microphones, in front of only a few dozen fans inside mostly empty arenas, explaining what had to be done. A look of bewilderment washed across the players' faces. The sports world folded up shop. Baseball would certainly follow, but we headed out to the ballpark for a 1 p.m. first pitch for Cards/Marlins anyway. There was almost no traffic,. Parking was a breeze. There were no lines at the ticket gates. The feeling inside the ballpark was as a quiet afterthought, a game played behind the scenes. Cardinals fans are some of the most passionate and loyal in MLB. They pack spring training for games every day. Yet, today the stadium was only about 70 percent full. The left field bleachers were almost empty. Clearly many people had stayed home.
The ones that were there were polite and somewhat engaged. In the 6th, Dennis Ortega dropped in a two-run double. There was a throw to the plate. It was not in time. The sea of red clapped. Some of them cheered a little. There was not much exuberance from the Cards. We all knew what was looming overhead. Throughout the game, plenty of fans around us discussed hand sanitizers and MLB shutting down. By the 7th inning, we got the news we expected. Major League Baseball would cancel the rest of spring training and postpone the start of the season. It was inevitable. We were watching the final games of sport. It was like pressing your nose against the window and watching the storm roll in.
The feeling was spooky. The Cardinals recorded the final out and instead of just another routine 3-0 exhibition win, it was finality. The fans stood up and applauded. It was a farewell. The players somewhat hugged in the infield. The fans slowly stood up and began walking to the exits. The pace was meandering, almost like people didn't know what to do with themselves now. Fans walking by the autograph tables noted how bids for the memorabilia auctions were unusually low. Normally there were two more weeks to accumulate offers for Ozzie Smith's batting helmet and Adam Wainwright's glove. Long lines snaked through the concourse to the fan shop, easily 50-60 people deep. It was the last chance to buy a t-shirt or cap to remember Spring Training 2020. Perhaps it was a chance to have a keepsake from the weirdest spring training day ever. The stadium hand-sanitizer stations were far more popular than ever today.
This is going to be it for awhile. The final breaths of games evaporating into the Florida sun. Life in America has changed nearly overnight, this week being as tumultuous as any in decades. Not only do we need to learn how to work from home, take care of families as schools are closed, and try to overcome the fear that follows this virus. We must do it without the solitude of sports, which has always been there prior. It's a small price to pay to get the sickness under control. It's certainly the right thing to do. But the feeling of no sports until further notice, whether that's weeks or months, is disorienting. On Thursday, sports hung up a "Closed By Owner" sign on its front door. I witnessed it in person, and it felt like getting shot into space, watching Earth recede in the window, and heading into some unknown darkness.