Padecky: Imagination, memories vital as our beloved sports go silent

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We now are stuck with what our imagination allows us.

Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford so deft aglove he picks up a grounder like he was picking a flower, imagining Brandon would make a great pickpocket.

We are sitting in the stands and we scream like our hair is on fire because our son just kicked the winning goal in the best soccer game ever, a bicycle kick that would have made Pele proud.

We grab a Guinness, tip the glass toward our buddy, and stare at the bar television, as we wonder how in the heck Steph Curry made that last shot which came, it seemed, from Iceland.

Folks, that’s what we are left with. Our imagination. We now live in a sports world with nothing to see, to cheer, to discuss. Yes, I can hear the giggles. No sports? Oh, poor baby. Must be hard to put away that drool cup. Must be hard to know you now have to speak in complete sentences with words longer than two syllables. Must be hard to accept the fact you now have to think like a grownup.

Bull feathers, I say, stretching your imagination on what bull feathers might look like. Bull feathers. Sports in America is more than a curiosity, or a coffee break, an amusement, something to do besides watching the cat cough up a hairball.

“When March Madness was canceled,” said Dr. Lauren Morimoto, a Sonoma State sociology professor with an emphasis on the role of sports plays in this country, “it was a wakeup call for a lot of people that, wow, this coronavirus needs to be taken seriously.”

The gasps, the stares, the questions, the anger, the stuttering to make sense of it, all of it surfaced at once just a week ago. The NCAA shut down the basketball tournament. It’s as close to a seismic jolt as we’ll ever see in the industry. Why? Because of the very thing that influences sports today. The Money. Truckloads of it. Pffftt! Gone.

The American Gaming Association estimates that 149 million brackets were filled by 40 million people with $8.5 billion bet on the 2019 tournament. The AGA estimated one of five Americans bet on March Madness last year. Let’s not forget CBS and Turner Sports pay $800 million a year to televise the tournament.

“It’s people getting together, at the office, at a sports bar,” Morimoto said. “Some brackets are made not to make a killing but rather for the social aspect. Sports brings people together.”

Ever sit in the stands at a game, no matter what level, and know you’re next to someone you otherwise have nothing in common? But humans are herd animals. We like groups. We like gatherings. We accept our differences, even the huge ones, because we’re there for the 49ers or Cal or Newman.

“In sports, we become a part of a tribe,” Dr. Morimoto said.

That’s why the Stanford band performance may not sell out but the Stanford football team will. Like it or not, and many don’t. Misplaced values. Wrong emphasis to societal impact. Rooting for a team is incredibly important? How can that be, say those who view sports as wretched excess, just a cheap excuse to buy overpriced beer?

“Because sports is not just there to entertain us,” Dr. Morimoto said. “We can pretend it is but it’s not. It’s an essential fabric of our society. Look at it at the local level.”

Days, weeks, months, years even, are spent with parents shuttling their kids to practices, to games, to tournaments, to banquets, to private lessons, to specialized physical workouts. Some parents can and will live their lives through their children. Can that be too much? Yes, absolutely. Go to any Little League game if you’re looking for examples.

Hopes and dreams are riding in the car along with Johnny and Judy. If you had a choice, you’d take the parent who cares too much than the one who doesn’t care at all. A good friend can convince that zealot to sit on their hands for 10 minutes and see how it feels. That has a better chance to succeed than telling some dad to stop working the cell phone and watch his kid; that would feel like an insult.

Routines develop. One parent picks the kids up after school and takes them to practice. The other parent is on the clock to take them home. Dinner has to be planned. Too many plates in the air not to be organized. Oh, and can’t be late ­— the trepidation of having your kid alone after dark waiting for you, here’s a Xanax for you, dad.

“What about the athletes themselves?” Dr. Morimoto asked. “Here at SSU we have a water polo team that’s won its last four games. Expectations are high. Now that’s gone.”

Seasons never finished. Dreams never realized. Handshakes never offered. Futures fuzzy. Forget about mom and dad and coach. The true athlete is out there for the competition, to be tested. Sports doesn’t build character. It reveals it. The true athlete — not concerned about doing a victory dance — sees the opponent not as the enemy but an opportunity to be tested, to get better, to improve.

Now, all of that is gone. All of it. From youth sports all the way to the professionals. Everyone is kicked off the field and out of the stands. All of the shuttling and tailgating and beer tipping? All the tribal gatherings and WOW moments? All the high-fives with the guy next to you who smells? Gone. How do you cheer in silence? Xanax probably wouldn’t help.

What next? What do we do now in the void?

On ESPN we could watch that 2015 ACC championship game, whoever played. Or famous soccer flops (of which there are many). Or famous tantrums (of which there are even more). Or just listen to game outtakes of John Madden — which would be my first suggestion. Other than Frank Caliendo’s impression of Madden, of course.

Yes, there are options but they pose a finite timeline, given that we are to be locked up in our homes. We can shake our heads in disgust as we watch videos of college kids on spring break on a Florida beach or supposedly fully mature adults holding hands strolling down San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Obliviousness has its price; we hope we are not the ones who will be paying for it.

Eventually, if we are to shelter-in-place, we hunker down in our homes. We read the ticker and see Tom Brady is leaving the Patriots and going to Tampa Bay. Well, that took all of a minute.

Of course, if you are in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and just lost your job at the warehouse because your company just shut down, and you live paycheck to paycheck, you might not care if Tom Brady joined a nunnery, much less the Bucs. Yep, pro athletes may get little sympathy from us. They can just go to the movie theater in their mansion and watch videos of themselves.

As days pass and get longer — “I wonder how a big family will do around each other all day, especially ones with small children?” says Morimoto — news will trickle in, mostly from the NFL and free agency and soon the NFL draft. The news comes. The news goes. And we stay and shrug and imagine how the isolation ends. That will be interesting.

In a matter of minutes the NBA took the bold step by shutting down the season. It is to be applauded. However, it will be also used as a template for return to action. The league will have to exercise the same caution in resuming as it did when it stopped. Fans will be nervous. Will they feel safe? Will they trust what they hear? Will the season resume with only players in arenas? How much did lost revenue play into the season?

Of course we don’t know. What we do know is we herd animals have an opportunity to really get to know each other. Because, sooner or later, eventually we will.

We can read, play video games, work the cell like a chess grandmaster. We can play with the dog, clean the sink until we can eat out of it and stare into space at night and see how many stars we can count.

“But I suspect we’re going to see some depression,” Dr. Morimoto said.

Our patience, tolerance and understanding will be tested. How far will we go in trying to look into each other, really look into each other? If this goes on for months, and it looks like it might, we will have plenty of time to examine the person inside as well as the ones at the dinner table.

That will take work, too much it might seem right now.

There are ways. Here’s one of them.

I have a good friend, Doug. Grew up in San Francisco. Went to Kezar Stadium as a kid with his dad. Spoke with great affection to be with Pop. It was and always will be great memories. That’s why now, years later, Doug is still a 49ers fan. He’s connected. Below the skin. Where his dad lives.

If you’re a sports fan, go below the surface. Tell the people you really care about why you really care about your team. Go below the surface.

If you played or are playing, tell people what that feels like. Find the buzz. Reveal it.

If you enjoy hanging with your buds, swapping jokes between pints and high-fives, tell your folks why.

Here’s my starter kit.

I was 12. Starting pitcher in my Little League’s All-Star game. Batted cleanup. I threw a pitch. It was in the second inning. It was called a strike. What happened next, I can’t explain why.

A girl was behind the backstop. For some reason I noticed her. I was looking right at her. She stared straight at me. She smiled at me. I blushed. Felt like a million bucks.

I never saw that little girl again. Least not in person. In my imagination, oh yes. That’s when I think I fell in love with baseball because that was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin. Baseball gave me that opportunity.

In the years since, through my writing, I guess I have been thanking that little girl, that sport and by association all sports. I felt vital, necessary even. Someone. I know I’m not alone.

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