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Just because the scoreboard is turned off doesn’t mean the fun must end

John Romano | The pros and colleges were shut down Thursday. On Friday, they came for prep sports, too. We’re searching for fun in a panic-stricken world.
Northeast High pitcher Sean Melanson throws in the final inning to secure a 3-0 victory over St. Petersburg on Friday afternoon.  Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this was the last day of high school games in Pinellas County for at least the rest of March. [BOYZELL HOSEY  |  Times]
Northeast High pitcher Sean Melanson throws in the final inning to secure a 3-0 victory over St. Petersburg on Friday afternoon. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this was the last day of high school games in Pinellas County for at least the rest of March. [BOYZELL HOSEY | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Friday was supposed to be the day that fun died. It was the day after the rinks closed, spring training disappeared and March officially lost its Madness.

And yet I’m standing in the shade of a hand-operated scoreboard in foul territory at Huggins-Stengel Field, and have been kindly handed a 0 to hang on the board in the bottom of the third inning at the Northeast-St. Petersburg High baseball game.

In times like this, we are solemnly told that life goes on, as if that’s the best we can hope for.

And yet I can’t help thinking life can still kick butt.

Yes, the pandemic is real. And yes, the closures, interruptions and safety measures are critically important in making sure the coronavirus is contained and diminished as quickly as possible.

But that does not mean we are required to take a vow of despair.

That’s why I have come to one of the only games left in town. Not because I might see this generation’s next-big-thing, or a game that might end with a last-inning blast.

Related: For now, we must cheer for safety rather than championships

I’ve come because I love the idea of parents watching their children play. I’ve come because I might see a second baseman make a diving play or a leftfielder make an over-the-shoulder catch. I’ve come because, somewhere, there is always a game to be played.

“Whatever you want to call what’s going on in the world right now, whether it’s panic or fear-driven, it’s kind of nice to just sit out here and forget about it all for a couple of hours," said Chuck Burnite, who operates the scoreboard and whose son Caleb made that over-the-shoulder catch in leftfield. “We were listening to (President) Trump’s address coming here, and I haven’t thought about it since I sat down."

St Petersburg High coach Casey Clary addresses his team after losing to Northeast 3-0 on Friday. His dad, who drove down from South Carolina in part to take in spring training, got to see his son coach before games were canceled. [BOYZELL HOSEY | Times]

This isn’t the same as watching the Rays, of course. You can’t switch on the radio to hear Andy and Dave describe the action, or plop down on the couch to watch on TV. There are too many runners thrown out on the bases, and not enough pop in their bats.

But there is something charming about watching kids from nearby schools who have grown up playing against each other in rival Little Leagues. The game (a 3-0 Northeast victory) whizzes by in 90 minutes.

“These kids have their whole lives ahead of them," said Northeast coach Rob Stanifer. “Maybe a few of them will play in college, but baseball will just be a small part in most of their lives. But these memories? They’ll have them forever."

Sitting alone in the bleachers more than an hour before the game, Bob Clary watches batting practice as the portable sound system behind the backstop plays the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Clary drove down from his home outside of Hilton Head, S.C., to catch a couple of Rays spring games and see his son Casey, who took over as St. Pete High’s head coach this year.

Unfortunately, his timing was off. Spring training was canceled before he made it to a ballpark.

“I’m one of these guys who, if they turn on the stadium lights, I’m going to show up," Clary said. “I don’t care who is playing, I will go to any baseball game. We follow the Rays because we spent a lot of years in the Durham area watching the Bulls, so we were hoping to see them play the Phillies in Clearwater. But that all unraveled real quickly, so this game will be it for us."

Even before Friday’s game ended, word was beginning to spread that the state would be suspending all prep activities for at least two weeks. Although the crowd at Huggins-Stengel Field probably didn’t crack 100, I suppose that’s the prudent thing to do.

So that’s one more potential avenue of entertainment being put on hold, along with the Rays, the Lightning, the Grand Prix, the Valspar Championship, the NCAA Tournament, the XFL and the Rowdies.

But as grim as that sounds, if you look hard enough there is still fun to be found on nearby courts and fields.

Just listen for the sound of children laughing.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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