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Was worth holding out hope for spring, but writing is on the wall

Was worth holding out hope for spring, but writing is on the wall Was worth holding out hope for spring, but writing is on the wall

Matt’s Bleacher Shots

So here we are, five weeks since the world stopped, still with more questions than answers.

It won’t be long now before questions will be answered regarding the spring sports season for Wisconsin high schools and whether schools will bring students back at any point in what remains of this school year. The end of Gov. Tony Evers’ March 24 stay-at-home order and mandatory school closures is next Friday. Evers hinted Tuesday in comments to a Minnesota television station it’s unlikely schools will re-open this spring.

From the sports end of it, the WIAA’s Board of Control will hold its next meeting via video conferencing on Tuesday. It will discuss options for the remainder of the spring sports seasons and summertime contact. Spring options are pretty much gone if there is any extension to school closures.

The WIAA took a wait-and-see approach to salvaging a spring season, which was the right thing to do. There was no reason to unilaterally cancel the entire thing in late March or early April, especially since one week of track practice was all that happened and there was time to let things play out. Sure, it left people in limbo, but it also kept doors open if unknown outcomes turn out better than expected.

The WIAA put as positive of a spin as it could on the situation, sending out social media messages reminding folks the season is suspended, not canceled, as well as a few motivational posts here and there to its followers to keep hope alive.

But UW-Madison, like it did during the boys basketball tournament when it declared the Kohl Center was off limits for state on the night of the sectional semifinals, set a grim tone by locking down its campus until at least June 30, which it announced Friday it was doing.

That means no softball, boys tennis or golf state tournaments at Goodman Diamond, Nielsen Tennis Stadium or University Ridge. The state meet at UW-La Crosse, in my eyes, is one of Wisconsin’s biggest annual social events. The girls state soccer tournament is in Milwaukee, which not surprisingly based on population, has been by far Wisconsin’s leader in coronavirus cases.

Switching sites for these tournaments would be a nightmare, but I could see it being done if needed, especially if large gatherings still aren’t allowed in early to mid-June, and there are places willing to host them. If there are no or few fans allowed, the basic needs are a place to play, strong guidelines about who can be there and some accommodations for baseball, softball and soccer games to be televised.

The flip side to that kind of scenario is audience limitations and social distance guidelines could be frustrating to enforce in a regular-season and early-round tournament setting if sports got the go-ahead. Can we reasonably do outdoor spring sports at a level between “full-go” and “no-go?”

The hard part now is answering the question of what is the benchmark that is going to allow games, school days or basic life to resume? And that benchmark may vary from community to community. Some positive reports are starting to emerge from around the state and nation that the peak may have been passed.

But it’s becoming apparent whatever the benchmark is, it won’t arrive in time to salvage spring sports or the school year in Wisconsin. And I’m one who, up until the last few days, really wanted to believe we could get something played in May.

Heck, people are already talking about fall sports being in jeopardy. I understand the concern, but please, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t even want to see any plugs being pulled on summer yet. There’s no good that comes out of canceling too early. There’s nothing going on, so there is no risk now involved with canceling anything too late –– other than the disappointment of having more rugs pulled out from under us. *** While trying to find slivers of hope that the boredom will end, it has been kinda fascinating to see some of the ideas that have leaked out from the professional sports ranks to get abbreviated seasons in.

The best one came from Major League Baseball, where the thought was to replace the American and National Leagues with Arizona’s Cactus League and Florida’s Grapefruit League for this year, keeping travel to a minimum and keeping fans out of ballparks as long as needed to keep things safe.

Supposedly, the Cactus League would’ve included the Northwest Division of Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle, Texas and Kansas City, the Northeast Division of the Cubs, San Francisco, Arizona, Colorado and Oakland and the West Division of both Los Angeles teams, the White Sox, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Teams could play 12 divisional games and six games against the other teams in their leagues for a shortened regular-season total of 108 games. Domed Major League stadiums in Tampa, Miami and Phoenix would be options to help with tight scheduling and could serve as playoff hosts, especially with the season going into late November. And having games on opposite coasts would provide lots of television options for the fans. You could easily have baseball on TV from late morning to midnight in a time where sports fans are starved for anything competitive to watch.

With an odd number of 15 teams per league, there would be some scheduling quirks with each team likely having to spend some game days playing doubleheaders against two different teams. I guess you could look at it like a glorified split-squad spring training-type day. Expanded rosters would be a must.

I do wonder, even for the world’s most dedicated professionals, if playing five straight months in small, empty ballparks and being stuck in one state that whole time would get old. Being optimistic, what would MLB do if public health takes a big positive turn and America is back to normal by August and you’ve got these Arizona- only and Florida-only schedules through November? MLB would surely want to be playing in front of fans in 40,000-seat stadiums again, but would that be difficult with divisions making no geographical sense?

I continue to say, this is the hardest part. There is no end date to this thing, so how do you make any plans?

Another report had the National Basketball Association thinking about finishing its 2019-20 season entirely at one site, with Las Vegas rumored to be that place and, again, with no fans until health officials declare otherwise. The national rumor mill said items up for discussion would be play-in games between lower-seeded teams in each conference to determine the playoff field, one-game “series” in the middle two playoff rounds and a best-of-five final, rather than a best-of-seven.

If I’m a team at the top of the current standings, like the Milwaukee Bucks, the thought of a one-and-done playoff series isn’t a good one when you spent four and a half months earning the right to be the number-one overall seed.

Any resumption of the 2019-20 season probably will result in a delayed start to the 2020-21 season. One report said NBA teams are figuring a 25-day period would be needed to get players back into competitive shape to close out this season. The NBA reportedly was already considering pushing back the start of its season to reduce competition with the football in the fall. Might be the perfect time to try it. Something is better than nothing. If we reach that point, say in mid to late May, it will be interesting to see what these leagues’ brainiacs will come up with to create something that is substantial enough to be compelling and, in the case of the NBA and National Hockey League which were nearing the home stretch, fair for teams that had great regular seasons.

Matt Frey is the Sports Editor at The Star News.