Thursday, July 23, 2020

An Abundance of Fear and Ignorance

The MLB season started today and as of now, the Toronto Blue Jays do not have a home. This is because the Government of Canada did not allow the club an exemption to the 14-day quarantine rule that affects all visitors to the country. The NHL was able to negotiate just such an exemption and will use Toronto and Edmonton as its hub cities with players in secure bubbles, but the Blue Jays and the visiting teams are considered too risky given the outbreaks in the US, despite rigorous testing for all members of the travelling parties.

The Canadian government is not the only one that has overreacted to such a tiny number of people coming in. The Blue Jays had reached an agreement with the Pirates to play in PNC Park, only to have that denied by health officials in Pennsylvania. Apparently having 60 games hosted in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is acceptable, but an additional 24 (there are some conflicts) is far too dangerous. These decisions show just how little those at the top really understand risk as they ignore far more insecure situations to continue unabated.

Having the Blue Jays play 30 games in Toronto presents far less risk than the thousands of truckers crossing the border daily with their essential (and non-essential) goods. They are not tested despite many of them coming from hotspots, and they are certainly interacting with the public more than the players ever would. But this inconvenient fact is ignored by the media.

My dislike of the Canadian government has become full-blown disgust at their high-minded hypocrisy. Five months into the pandemic and leaders are still propagating fear, helped by a media desperate for eyeballs. The public, unable to think for themselves, act like we are at the beginning of the Plague, instead of well into the spread of a disease that has an infection fatality rate (IFR) of approximately 0.05% (that is 1/2000) for people under 70, with almost all of those resulting from known co-morbidities.

Why are people still frightened? We know that the disease is primarily transmitted in indoor venues where people spend an extended period of time, especially while not wearing masks. There is no evidence of the disease being transmitted in an outdoor setting while wearing a face covering or social distancing. The protests showed this. The best way to prevent further spread of the disease is to keep places such as restaurants, bars, casinos, churches, and offices closed until the infection rate is low enough (whatever that may be), and to enforce a mask mandate, particularly on subways and other modes of transport. With the Rogers Centre next to a hotel at which players could isolate, it would be quite easy to keep the players separate from the general public. Of course, it is not a perfect bubble, as hotel workers would come back and forth, but that will be the same situation as facing the NHL. You cannot eliminate risk, but you can certainly minimize it. People saying the NHL plan is perfectly fine while MLB's plan is too risky have not thought this through.

Remember when the whole point of flattening the curve was to avoid overwhelming hospitals? Now it seems like the goal in many areas is to huddle down until a vaccine is found. This despite the fact that a vaccine is no guarantee against infection; viruses mutate and who knows if the vaccine you receive will protect you against the variant you might encounter in a year. The flu shot reduces the risk of catching the flu by 40-60% according to the CDC, with the caveat "during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well matched to the flu vaccine viruses". Well matched. That doesn't happen every year.

Of course, on the opposite end of the spectrum are those rallying against masks and calling the whole thing a hoax. Leaders such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (a Republican) have made grave errors by reopening too early, and the public, again lacking a understanding of how this disease works and possibly turned off by all the fear-mongering, rushed out to infect each other in restaurants, bars, and churches. Covidiocy indeed.

It is a lamentable fact that the coronavirus has become a political issue in the United States. The left is terrified while the right is defiant and they react to each other, while those in the center are forced to suffer either way. In New York, the curve has flattened to where we have a positive test rate around 1%. Still, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has instituted a poorly conceived (and impossible to enforce) policy that requires those who have visited one of 31 states where infection rates are rising to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering New York. He has also threatened to close down all bars and restaurants because a few have not been following the rules. It was his incompetence and dithering back in March that helped New York become the world leader in the COVID-19 death rate; now he acts like we are all little children and he is our grand protector. Sorry Andy, but those of us who can read and have working minds are fully capable of taking care of ourselves. Instead, tell us the goal. Are we waiting for an infection rate of 0% before getting back to normal? There is no reason that the Yankees and Mets could not host a limited number of fans following social distancing protocols, but we hear nothing about when this could actually happen. Fear of another outbreak is the dominant theme, rather than starting conversations about how to continue the return to normalcy.

Sadly, it is now obvious that we will be in this mess for a very long time. Pandemics generally last at least two years, and with the clueless leading the clueless (on both sides of the political divide), fear and ignorance will continue to be the primary drivers of behaviour. By the way, this is not the first time I have written about scaremongering and media complicity as I lived in Japan during the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

For now, I urge you to read as much as possible from a variety of sources (certainly not relying on this blog, which serves as my way to release pent-up anger), including those who might present a different viewpoint from your own. Reach your own conclusions; stay fearful if you must, but there is no excuse for remaining ignorant. And who knows, maybe I will see you at a game in 2021.

Update: The Jays will be playing in Buffalo in 2020, and Cuomo is happy with that. So he is not a complete loss.



Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Washington Kastles 24 at Vegas Rollers 18 (World Team Tennis) - July 19, 2020

The first big sport to announce that they would be open to fans was World Team Tennis, which did so back in late May. The entire season would be held at The Greenbrier (main hotel below), America's oldest resort located in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The tennis facility there seats 2,500 fans, but only 500 would be allowed in each day. With no other sports road trip possible at the time, I immediately began making plans to attend, but I needed another event nearby to make it worthwhile. I first paired it with a visit to the PGA's Memorial Tournament, which initially intended to allow fans, but when they reversed that decision, I had to scramble to find a Coastal Plain League game in Martinsville instead.

After the game, I spent the evening in Roanoke, and then awoke early Sunday, driving up beautiful Route 311 to reach White Sulphur Springs before noon. Google Maps suggests using US220 and I-64 (10 miles longer but saving you 5 minutes), but Route 311 is far more enjoyable, being both scenic and rather winding, keeping you on your toes as you drive. As it was a very hot and clear day, sunscreen was essential and on the way in to town, I stopped at Family Dollar. They had exactly one tube of sunscreen left, specifically for babies, but at SPF 50, it works for old people too. Without it, I would have roasted.

Parking for the WTT is at the Amtrak station across the street from The Greenbrier. You had to take the shuttle bus in (above); before boarding my temperature was taken and I received a happy face stamp on my hand to indicate that I did not have a fever. The bus was also limited to 50% capacity and masks were mandatory. The ride was about two minutes long.

The bus drops you off right in front of the entrance, where you can find a banner listing all nine WTT teams. There is also a ticket window, though I had bought my ticket immediately after they went on sale, picking up the first ticket for the day and possibly the tournament.

The entrance was very simple, just a tent with fans entering on the right and exiting on the left. Another temperature check was necessary for those who had driven in and thus lacked the happy face stamp. There was just one lady scanning tickets and disappointingly, my #1 ticket was not acknowledged. You had to be wearing a mask to get in and as you walked around the concourse, but you could take it off when sitting down.

I had paid $60 for an upper bowl seat, $50 less than a lower bowl seat, which included access to the VIP lounge (below). Shade would have been nice, but the sunscreen cost only $3.50 and I could watch the match as well. Tickets actually went up $12 as the date got closer, so there must have been some demand, but even then, I don't think it was sold out.

This is the WTT's 45th season and a list of league champions was placed near the entrance. Remember that Sacramento dynasty? There is not a lot of continuity year to year in terms of team membership, though some players do spend multiple seasons with the same franchise, such as Martina Hingis with the Washington Kastles from 2013-17.

The stadium is officially dubbed Center Court at Creekside as it is right next to Howard Creek, which winds its way through the property.

Below is a shot of the creek and a bridge that leads to the golf course, which was used for the PGA's recently discontinued Greenbrier Classic.

Inside the venue, the lower level consists of just 9 rows of seats along both sides, with every second row blocked off to ensure social distancing.

The upper bowl is much larger and you pretty much had a section to yourself if you wanted. Most fans brought large umbrellas to keep themselves shaded.

Along the top of the walkway in the upper bowl are pennants for each team in the circuit, including my hometown New York Empire, who I saw back in 2016.

Below is the view from center court in the upper bowl. The team benches are covered by umbrellas, while the suites and media room are behind the seating area. To the left of the suites is the concession stand, which offers a few items at not outrageous prices, with cans of beer going for just $5. The food menu was rather limited as you would expect with so few fans, by the time I decided to buy something, only hot dogs and hamburgers were left as main items. No problem bringing your own food in if you plan to stay for a while.

The camera booth was at one end of the stadium and provided a small bit of shade to the side, of which some fans availed themselves throughout the day. As you can tell, it is quite a scenic environment.

Overall, I was impressed by how seamless the event was given the circumstances. All fans here respected the rules regarding masks and social distancing and other leagues should take note as the WTT has proven that you can have sporting events with fans when proper measures are taken. Instead, five months into the pandemic, fear and ignorance continue to rule. More on that in a future post.

The Matches

I lucked out with the matches as each of the first two featured a player I wanted to see. First off, it was the Washington Kastles with Venus Williams taking on the Vegas Rollers. WTT matches include one set of each variety (men's and women's singles and doubles and mixed doubles) with each set going to five games, a deciding point at the first deuce, and a 9-point tiebreak should the set reach 4-all.

The first set saw Williams (serving below) and Arina Rodionova taking on Asia Muhammad and Kristie Ahn, a Flushing native, with the Kastles prevailing 5-1.

The next four sets all went to tiebreak, with the highlight being Ahn, an injury replacement for Monica Puig, defeating Williams in the only win for Vegas. That was the first of three sets broadcast nationally on CBS. The final set saw the Bryan brothers losing to Nick Monroe and Marcelo Arevalo as Washington prevailed 24-18. Monroe made an incredible passing shot that was the #6 play on SportsCenter that evening. The whole match took 3:15, helped by a 30-minute wait before the women's singles due to the broadcast start time.

There was also a 30-minute break before the next match between the Orlando Storm and the expansion Chicago Smash starring Eugenie Bouchard, the other player I had also hoped to see. I went over to explore the hotel, returning in time to see Orlando's Tennys Sandgren beat Brandon Nakashima in a tiebreak. Bouchard (serving below, note the ESPN logo on the net replacing the CBS logo that was there earlier) then joined Bethanie Mattek-Sands for a doubles set against Danielle Collins and Jessica Pegula, daughter of Terry and Kim, who own the Buffalo Bills. My Canadian heritage outranks my Bills fandom and I cheered as Bouchard led the Smash to a 5-3 victory.

After five hours in the sun, I was thoroughly baked and with Bouchard no longer scheduled to play, decided to head back to Roanoke, skipping the rest of the match (won by Chicago 24-19 as they took the final 3 sets, with Bouchard subbing in to overcome a 4-1 deficit against Collins). I was back at my hotel as the match finished and followed the final match of the day online as San Diego beat Orange County 20-14 in another blowout where the winning team took 4 of 5 sets. This was also a rematch of the 2016 championship that I attended at Forest Hills Stadium.

Not a particularly competitive day on the courts, but I was very happy to conclude a sports travel weekend by adding my 832nd venue to the list.

Update: the season ended on August 2nd with the New York Empire defeating Chicago 21-20 in a super tiebreaker. There were no reports of fans or WTT members contracting the coronavirus.


On Monday, Collins was dismissed from the rest of the season after leaving the Greenbrier, thus breaking the pandemic protocols.

There was some entertainment provided as well. Mcenafro, (i.e. a John McEnroe impersonator with his 70s afro) and the WTT Dancers gave a couple of short performances that were mildly amusing.

The area is known for a spring of sulphur water that visitors have been "taking" for medicinal purposes since 1778. The Springhouse (below) sits atop the spring and has been the symbol of the resort since 1835. There is much to see and do here, including a bunker that was always ready to host the government in times of emergency. It was never used and is now a tourist attraction.

Next Up

Still hoping to get to some other collegiate wood bat and independent league games that are scattered around the country. Unfortunately, New York is now asking people coming from 31 states to quarantine themselves for two weeks. Like I said, fear and ignorance are still ruling the day, so we shall see if I can figure out a way to travel without having to spend 14 days at home upon my return. Check back regularly to see what transpires.



Monday, July 20, 2020

Peninsula Pilots 6 at Martinsville Mustangs 9 (Coastal Plain League) - July 18, 2020

When the Memorial Tournament decided to not allow fans, I had to find another event for Saturday within a few hours of the World Team Tennis, which I would attend on Sunday. It took me a while, but I was able to use the map at to find a team in Martinsville (VA), just 90 minutes south of White Sulphur Springs (WV), where the WTT is being held. The Mustangs are part of the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate wood bat circuit, and as luck would have it, they were home on Saturday night. So I changed my flight, flying to Greensboro (NC) instead of Columbus (OH), and after renting a car, drove the hour to Martinsville.

The Mustangs play out of Hooker Field, named for a local furniture concern that is actually traded on the NASDAQ under the symbol HOFT. Hooker helped with a major renovation in 1988 that led to the venue hosting Appalachian League baseball until 2003. Before 1988, it was known as English Field after the gentleman who built it back in 1930. So baseball has been played on the site for 90 years.

There is an asphalt parking lot right next to the field, but if you are worried about dents and broken windows, use the overflow lot across the street; it is where the players park. Tickets are available for $7 at the window. As there is a pandemic going on, all seats are general admission.

A sign of the times above. Despite this request, some fans sat just one seat apart from me, which is far less than six feet, forcing me to move. Few fans wore masks, though they were more visible outside the ballpark at fast food spots and a local museum. Hand sanitizer was available throughout the stadium.

The ballpark has three sections of box seats behind the plates (with every second row blocked off), a couple of sections of special seating on top of the dugouts, and then benches down both lines. The benches along the third base line are dug into the hillside and are above a small grassy area where kids can play, while those along first base are your typical bleachers. Capacity is 3,200 and there were only 367 on hand, so plenty of room, except for the box seats, which were relatively full.

The visiting bullpen is down the line and has no room for the players to actually sit, so they use the benches above it.

The sun sets behind first base, so sitting along that side will keep you from squinting.

There are a couple of concession stands offering simple fare, and a shack down beyond third base that boasts a variety of beers and other drinks, as well as some standing tables.

Overall, Hooker Field is as simple as you would expect for a ballpark at this level and I really enjoyed being in the open air for a change. It was my first new ballpark since I went to Vegas last August, a very long time indeed. I'm hoping to add a few more of these next month in the Dakotas and other areas that are relatively free of the coronavirus.

The Game

The Peninsula Pilots were the visitors and the two clubs were playing their third game in as many nights, with each winning at home. Players are mostly from smaller Division I and Division II schools, but there are a few from Power 5 teams. Martinsville started Logan Campbell (Charleston) while Peninsula replied with Zach Tsakounis (William and Mary). Neither was very good and it was 4-3 Mustangs after one inning. Tsakounis was replaced, something that the Pilots would do 5 more times on the evening. Campbell gave up a run in the second and another in the third before he was taken out, with Kevin Kopps (Arkansas) coming in. Kopps was the star, tossing 4.1 innings of shutout ball while his offense unloaded on the Pilot bullpen, including a 2-run homer from Will Knight (VMI), as Martinsville prevailed 9-6.

The level of baseball is not great but still watchable and sometimes laughable. On one play, after a Peninsula single, the ball was thrown back to the infield but nobody was watching and it rolled to the catcher, who didn't see it bounce off his foot. The runner on first managed to make it to third, but he was thrown out at home when the following batter grounded to first.

Umpiring is also rather inconsistent. In particular, the home plate ump allowed time to be called while the pitcher was in his windup. This happened a few times, and the Peninsula manager complained vociferously when it was his guy on the mound. He was ejected and went ballistic, screaming at the umpire and getting right in his face, which is a no-no in a pandemic. The umpires are not pros at this level and it makes no sense to get that angry; just say your piece from a safe distance and get back to the dugout.



Saturday, July 11, 2020

Should Fans Be Allowed to Attend Games?

With the PGA's Memorial Tournament reversing their original decision and no longer allowing fans on site, it seems appropriate to wonder if fans should be allowed to attend any sporting event at all. Of course, a more pressing question might be should sports even be played? In both cases, I believe the answer is yes, with some obvious caveats.

Let's start with the games themselves. Sports are by no means essential, but they are a business and they do provide relief from the tedium of the pandemic, which is still in its early stages and will likely last into late 2021 if not beyond. I expect that most players don't want to lose two seasons of their already short careers, and I can't imagine owners paying players to sit around for two years either. A lot of lower level teams that do not have the luxury of TV money cannot afford to forgo revenue for that long. Already, European soccer leagues have resumed with matches played in empty grounds, while the MLS has just started a tournament in Orlando, although two teams have been dismissed for having several COVID cases among their players. Even the Memorial is still going on, which leads one to wonder how it could be safe for players without masks but unsafe for spectators with masks.

Either way, sports can be conducted safely only if testing for participants is being done properly. MLB has had some issues with their testing protocols, but teams are training at their stadiums and the schedule has been set. It remains to be seen if the NBA and NHL bubbles will work, while the NFL is moving ahead, but with capacity significantly reduced. In all cases, players can opt out if they feel the situation is not safe. So for now at least, games can and will be played.

Which leads to the question about fans. Some independent baseball leagues are in action and admitting spectators, though much below capacity to allow for social distancing, so we know it can be done. But can larger leagues follow suit? For outdoor games, the answer is definitely yes, if protocols are followed. That means masks required for every fan, limited capacity to allow for social distancing, general admission seating per price point, reduced concessions (obviously one must remove one's mask to eat or drink, so a special area for fans who want to take that risk), and hand sanitizer everywhere. We also have to consider ushers and other workers, especially those inside such as concession staff. Protocols must be developed to ensure they remain safe. As cases surge in Arizona, California, Texas, and Florida, it tells us that there should be some criteria in terms of local positivity rate (say less than 3%) that must be met before fans can be allowed in.

Indoor games need a little more thought. I'd be hesitant to spend two hours in a small college gym with stale air, but a larger venue with good circulation would not present a concern to me. For example, Barclays Center will install HEPA filters, which should eliminate contaminated aerosols as air circulates. Of course, if the person sitting next to you is expelling the virus for three hours, even with both of you wearing masks, filters are not going to help much. That is why you need to be able to move away from any situation you deem risky.

Baseball has yet to announce their plans for fans, but sadly, neither Yankee Stadium nor Citi Field will be hosting attendees as Mayor Dipshit de Blasio has prohibited large gatherings through September, except, of course, for protests. Hey Dippy, an outdoor, masked assembly is either safe or it isn't! It is safe by the way, as more and more research is showing transmission takes place mostly in crowded, indoor venues with poor ventilation, while recent protests have not led to a spike in cases in NYC. It is becoming clear that outdoor activities with masks are fine, regardless of their purpose. With New Yorkers testing positive at a rate of about 1%, we can say the curve has been flattened. But no, let's stay scared everyone!

Government overreach is not limited to New York. In Canada, Blue Jays players have been threatened with $750,000 fines for leaving their bubble, which includes the Marriott Hotel at Rogers Centre, at any point during the 60-game season. This assumes the Jays will actually play in Toronto rather than Florida, but misses the point that walking outside, with a mask, is not unsafe. Again, the purpose of masks and social distancing is to flatten the curve, not to ensure that nobody ever catches the virus again. Keeping people indoors for two months over "an abundance of caution" is unreasonable.

Those aforementioned states are surging because they never got the virus under control in the first place. Unfortunately, the lethal combination of incompetent leadership and mask-fearing morons means that the situation will continue for far longer than it ever should have here in America. Still, there are places where things are under control, and for those fortunate fans, attending games is something that can and should be allowed. I am looking forward to my first live event, a collegiate wood bat game next week in Virginia. Check back then to see if I made it.