For now, we must cheer for safety rather than championships

John Romano | It seems like the entire sports world is about to go on hiatus. That may be disappointing, but it feels like the right decision.
The Rays dugout at Charlotte Sports Park could remain empty until next season after Thursday's announcement that spring training has been suspended indefinitely out of concern for the coronavirus.
The Rays dugout at Charlotte Sports Park could remain empty until next season after Thursday's announcement that spring training has been suspended indefinitely out of concern for the coronavirus. [ John Romano ]
Published March 12, 2020|Updated March 13, 2020

PORT CHARLOTTE — The final gate swung shut at 5:29 p.m. Thursday at the Charlotte Sports Park. There were no more fans and, for the time being, no more spring training games for Major League Baseball.

Ditto for the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League regular seasons. College basketball’s March Madness has been canceled and Major League Soccer is taking a break. All around us, the world of big-time sports is being put on hold, or scrubbed.

And now that the courts and fields are all empty, it’s time to applaud.

This is the right decision, even if it’s an overreaction. This is the appropriate response, even if some games and championships are forever lost. This is the prudent choice, even if your sports-obsessed neighbor is shouting otherwise.

And I pray, two weeks from now, someone calls me an alarmist. For that will mean the worst of the pandemic will have already passed, and all these precautions will seem hysterical in retrospect. But the truth is, we may never know. If the coronavirus turns out to be less deadly than expected, we may have the alarmists, the fear-mongerers and the Chicken Littles to thank.

So if you had tickets to NCAA Tournament games in Tampa next week? I’m sorry.

And if you had tickets to the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook in Palm Harbor, which was canceled late Thursday? I know, it stinks.

These were extraordinary measures being taken by sports officials, but this is an extraordinarily dangerous virus. It spreads quickly and easily, and health officials have said it is far more likely to kill an elderly person than the common flu.

And if you’ve ever been to a mid-week spring training game in Florida, you know it’s like Disney for seniors. The kids are in school, the weather is nice, and the smaller stadiums are manageable for fans needing assistance.

Which may explain why they still came through the gates for a meaningless game on Thursday afternoon in Port Charlotte. They came with caps for the sun, Purell for their hands and rationales for their state of mind.

“I can see why people are concerned, and I think cancelling the games is probably the right thing to do," said Kathy Falco, a retired kindergarten teacher from Fort Myers via Philadelphia. “But I’m here, and I brought my wipes with us, so I guess I’m not too worried."

“Yeah, but if somebody starts coughing near me," said her husband Joe, “we’re outta here."

And so goes the new world order. A sort of trust-but-sanitize version of life. It’s trying to find that happy medium between comfort and vigilance.

“I’m sitting here in the sun, in the fresh air, getting natural Vitamin D, so that doesn’t feel like a dangerous thing," said Steve Peters, 66, of Tampa. “But I’m not a doctor either, and if smarter people think it’s safer to stay home, I’m not going to argue with them."

It’s fine to believe, as Rays pitcher Blake Snell said Wednesday, that the risk is overblown. If you’re young, healthy and wealthy, the virus probably does look more like a nuisance than a potential death threat.

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But for millions of others, it’s not easy or advisable to be so blasé.

There was a story on Twitter of a couple in their 80s who were sitting in their car in a parking lot in Oregon because they were afraid to go inside the grocery store. They had no friends or family nearby who could help, so they waited 30 minutes until they settled on a passerby they could trust. After expressing their fears to this stranger, they handed over $100 and a grocery list to the young woman who purchased their food, placed it in their trunk and gave them their change.

The story was simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. An example of the most vulnerable among us, but also the depths of our compassion.

This is what we do in times of emergency. We sacrifice for the greater good. We’ve done it in wartime, we’ve done it in the aftermath of natural disasters and we will do it now in the throes of a pandemic.

There are no rules. There are no absolutes. You can agree or disagree with the severity of restrictions or suspensions or cancellations, but you cannot argue that the stakes aren’t frighteningly high for a great number of families.

“The threat is bigger than the games," said Gil Swalls, 64, of Land O’Lakes who is still holding tickets for another spring training game, along with Lightning and Rays regular season tickets. “I mean, I’m disappointed. I enjoy doing stuff.

“But it’s better to be safe. I’m okay with that."

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.