Sunday, March 29, 2020

Your Virtual NASCAR tale for today

You know what I miss, after a week of Netflix and Hulu and grinding on the treadmill, which is nothing more than a metaphor for life right now?

I miss Pole Position.

Remember that? Man, it was like the origin of the virtual motorsports species. It was the cave drawing of video racing games. And I was good at it. I was freaking Ayrton Senna, is who I was.

Fast forward now several millennia on the virtual gaming timeline, and here's what we have: A bunch of NASCAR drivers with virtually nothing to do virtually maintaining the racing schedule through the first-ever iRacing Pro Series, which is conducted on the racing simulators drivers use to keep their skills sharp. Denny Hamlin won the first simulator race last week at Homestead, Fla. Today everyone goes to Texas, where NASCAR was supposed to race for real today.

The best part of this?

In iRacing, you run into issues you don't often run into in actual racing.

For instance: Last week, in his first crack at it, Chase Elliott didn't do so well. Part of this might have had to do with the fact he was racing in house slippers and perhaps wasn't in the optimum mindset. But part of it he blamed on his crew chief, who was fellow NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney.

It seems Blaney wasn't treating his duties with the proper, um, seriousness.

"He was in and out of the room refilling beers," Elliott revealed to Sporting News.

Imagine Ray Evernham doing that to a young Jeff Gordon back in the day.

"This thing is all kinds of loose. I need to come in," Jeff barks into his mic.

"Stay with it. I gotta go pick up a sixer," Evernham replies.

Now that would be entertaining. And can't you imagine this exchange between Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson?

J.J.: "Hey, Chad, did you do that thing you said you were gonna do to the car today?"

CHAD (taking a swig of beer, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand): "I'm sorry, what was that?"

J.J.: "That thing. That thing you were gonna do."

CHAD (taking another swig): "Aw, hell, I forgot."

J.J. "What?! Chad!"

CHAD: "Oh, relax, Jimmie. In fact bring 'er on in. You sound like you could use a cold one."

Man. More fun than Pole Position, that would be.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dislocation, envisioned

The prophet is never the guy you invite to parties. No one really wants to hear him harsh the mellow by prattling on, over drinks and hors d'oeuvres, about how the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are coming, and so you'd best lay in a stock of booze and toilet paper.

So you can understand why a lot of folks probably think ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit is a big poopyhead right now.

It's because Herbstreit hauled off and said he'd be shocked if there were any NFL or college football seasons this fall, and then laid out the reasons why. Pro and college football, he said in so many words, are the literal antithesis of social distancing. Not only do you have thousands of people crammed cheek-by-germ in the stands, you have thousands of them hanging out together in the parking lots, football being the unique American social event it is.

Absent the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, Herbie says, NFL teams and universities simply aren't going to want to assume liability if players or fans get sick after games.

He has a point. I just think he's getting a bit ahead of developments here.

On the other hand, I also think this: I don't really know.

I don't really know because none of us really know what next fall is going to look like, in the new reality of COVID-19. Will the curve, as they say, flatten by then? Will the pandemic burn itself out, as most pandemics have before? Will it go away for awhile and then come back with a vengeance, as so many also have throughout history?

The bubonic plague that first reached Europe in the early 1300s kept recurring for centuries, remember. Ditto the 1918 flu pandemic that killed half-a-million Americans and hundreds of millions worldwide. It first surfaced in Kansas in the spring of 1918, subsided for awhile, then came back in a far more deadly form in the late summer and fall.

Hard to say right now if COVID-19 is going to do that, or if it will be anything remotely comparable. Hard to say anything at this point, especially given that the United States is still in the early stages of this outbreak and already has exceeded every other country in the world in confirmed cases. And that with testing which remains far less available than in all those other countries.

Which  is why Herbstreit can't simply be dismissed as a Chicken Little running in circles dodging pieces of sky. Or why we can't say when the baseball season will begin, or if it does. Or if moving the Indianapolis 500 to the third week of August is just delaying its inevitable cancellation.

Right now, on March 28, we can't say anything. Especially in a nation where kids are holding coronavirus parties and a significant portion of the population still believes the whole thing is a hoax pumped up by the Evil Media to make our Glorious Leader look bad.

One of those people, an itinerant pastor and musician in Virginia, just died from that hoax.

Kirk Herbstreit doesn't sound so crazy, next to that. Not so crazy at all.

Dislocation, continued

So now they're moving the Indianapolis 500 out of May, and this is where it gets weird.

(OK. So this is already plenty weird, and awful, and has the feel not of real life but of being trapped inside a bad Michael Bay film -- is there any other kind? -- about the end times. But this is weird-weird.)

Anyway, they are moving the 500 to August 23, hopefully, and here is where all this hits me where I live. I covered the 500 for almost 40 years as a professional journalist, and before that I was a kid watching the Day-Glo gleam of the STP turbine pierce the gloom of a certain gray Saturday, and getting soaked to the skin by a cloudburst on another day when Bobby Unser won a rain-shortened 500.

Half my life is measured by months of May. But ... August?

August is for sweating out the equatorial heat of an Indiana summer, and watching your grass turn to shredded wheat, and NFL training camps. It's for the dog days of the baseball season, with my cruddy Pittsburgh Pirates already well out of it (again!). It's for back-to-school sales and last days at the lake and the realization that, come Labor Day, the fun is over and it's back to breathing chalk dust in some musty classroom.

May?

May is Indy. Forever and ever.

Here's how far back forever goes: The first 500 went off on May 30, 1911. And how far back is that?

Well ... William Howard Taft was president.

The Titanic was under construction in Belfast, and was still 11 months away from its appointment with the iceberg.

Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium didn't exist.

Ty Cobb was 24 years old. Babe Ruth was 16. Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams had yet to be born. And Satchel Paige, forever ageless, was all of four years old.

In all the years from then to now, 109 of them, the Indianapolis 500 was run in May. Preparations for it occupied the entire month, which is how the Month of May came to be its trademark term. The place went from Ray Harroun tearing around the bricks at 75 mph to Simon Pagenaud tearing around asphalt at 230, and yet it was always in May, always that turbulent month when you could feel summer coming one day, and March making a late rally the next.

Radio, TV, commercial air flight and the worldwide web happened, as all those Mays fluttered past. Two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the war(s) in Iraq and Afghanistan happened. December 7 and September 11 became more than dates on a calendar. We made it through a Great Depression, a Cold War, the '60s and disco.

And every year, there was the Month of May. Every year, there was Harroun and Billy Arnold and Louis Meyer and Wilbur Shaw, Bill Vukovich and A.J. and Parnelli and Mario. And Miller-Fords and Deusenbergs and Offies and Novis and Lotus-Fords -- and, yes, Pratt-and-Whitney turbines, too.

And now, all of that moves to August, hopefully, for the first time ever. And May has a hole in it nothing can fill, as so much else about our lives has a hole in it these days.

So weird. So very, very weird.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Out of sight ...

I passed a baseball diamond this morning, on my lengthy walk. I was hardly alone.

No, sir. The sun was third-week-of-March warm, the breezes were soft, and so we all emerged, blinking, from our isolation. There were parents with strollers and couples and kids on bikes with oversized helmets wobbling atop their heads like bowling balls on pencils. There were schoolgirls playing hooky from e-learning, presumably.

At one point, a pint-sized boy wearing a coonskin cap pedaled madly past me, as if I had been transported to 1955 and it was polio we still feared, and not some baroque strain of virus.

But back to the ball diamond.

It was deserted on this morning, and fringed with overgrowth, and garnished with standing water here and there. And it nagged at me. It whispered that there was something I was forgetting, something important, something that had eluded me here in the grim new world of COVID-19.

Then I got home and opened one of my sports websites, and there it was.

Today would have been Opening Day in Major League Baseball, in a different reality. And I had completely forgotten about it.

Forgot about the Cubs and the Yankees and the Dodgers and my cruddy Pittsburgh Pirates. Forgot about Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium and Chavez Ravine. Forgot about the Astros, those cheatin' no-goodniks, and the Washington Nationals, your World Series champions, and that one Opening Day in Wrigley Field when it was 45 degrees and a wind like flung razor blades was howling straight in off Lake Michigan, which was crashing ashore along Lakeshore Drive in monstrous breakers.

Strange how much goes out of your mind, when it's out of your sight for even a short while. Two weeks or less since everything in sports went dark, and already I don't even think about it anymore.

I don't think about this being Opening Day. Don't think about this being Sweet Sixteen weekend in the NCAA Tournament. Don't think about this being the weekend of the state finals in boys basketball in Indiana, a grand a totem as there is in this basketball state.

Two weeks since it all went dark, not even, and already I've forgotten that NASCAR would have been in Texas this week, in that other world. I've forgotten that LeBron would have been back home in Cleveland with the Lakers today. I've forgotten that our hometown hockey team, the Fort Wayne Komets, would be in the stretch run to the playoffs right now.

It's like the shift of a moon's orbit, all of this. We've been blown loose from our trajectory into a new one, where Opening Day and the Sweet Sixteen have become binging on Netflix and hanging with the fam and going for long walks when the sun turns third-week-of-March warm.

Kids on bikes, that's our NCAA bracket now, with Coonskin Cap as the overall No. 1 seed. Two young boys heaving a globe-sized basketball at a rim, that's LeBron in Cleveland. And Opening Day?

A deserted baseball diamond.

Fringed with overgrowth. Garnished with standing water. Evoking something barely, if at all, remembered.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Virtual unreality

Look, I get it. We're all stir crazy here in this season of our national weirdness.

And so I cruise the sports websites and see that Denny Hamlin won the NASCAR race last weekend, only not really. He won a virtual NASCAR race, holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr., who isn't even racing-racing anymore. Also, down in Florida, the weirdness capital of America that isn't spelled "Texas," the state lege officially declared Florida State the NCAA Tournament champs, on account of they finished 26-5 in the regular season and were ranked No. 4 in the last Associated Press poll.

Well, phooey on that. If the Florida lege can do that, I can do this:

I can declare the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers national champs, on account of they have a great nickname and Chauncey, the most awesome mascot in college sports.

I can declare Seabiscuit the winner of the virtual Kentucky Derby, even though Seabiscuit is dead.

I can, virtually speaking, take Scott Dixon or Alexander Rossi or Josef Newgarden, put him in one of  those glorious old front-engine Novis from the 1950s, and declare him the winner of the 2020 Indianapolis 500. In this way one of history's great wrongs will be righted, and a Novi will finally win the 500.

I can pit the 1966 Packers against the 2019 Chiefs and make them replay Super Bowl I. I can pit J.D. McCoy against the 1970s Steel Curtain just so I can watch the little goober get crushed. Then I can bring in Matt Saracen to save the day.

(Gratuitous, and also obligatory, reference to "Friday Night Lights," the greatest TV show in history.)

I can make Jimmy Connors win Wimbledon again with that horse(bleep) Wilson T-2000 racquet. I can make Tiger Woods lose the Masters to Burt the insurance adjuster. I can stick Lance Armstrong on a Sting-Ray bike with a banana seat and make him do the entire Tour de France on it. Let's see you claim the yellow shirt on that, Steroid Boy.

I can go back in time and make it so the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series every single year. I can also go back in time and make it so I never, ever blow a deadline.

Well. OK. So I can't do that.

Ringless summer

At least there will be an Olympics, some summer. So COVID-19 has not precisely hurled us backward 40 years, among its other dubious achievements.

Forty years ago, see, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and an American president again injected politics into an enterprise that had always been a political instrument, despite all the willful obliviousness of crusty old Avery Brundage and others.  Jimmy Carter decreed that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics, and an entire army of young athletes who had dreamed of marching into some ringing stadium under a five-ringed banner was told to cool its jets.

Some people hated that. Some thought it was a shame, but sport is only sport, and there were greater moral imperatives for a nation that still had some. Opinions varied.

In the end, of course, the boycott only led to a Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics four years later. It did not chase the Soviets out of Afghanistan; the forerunners of al Qaeda, armed by America and then abandoned by her, did that. In so doing, they hastened the end of the Soviet regime the American boycott was protesting to begin with.

This is not that. This is merely a date on a calendar. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will now become the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and the Games will go on.

And yet ...

And yet, it's one more piece of the normal we will miss.

Already the Masters and the Kentucky Derby and the baseball season have been displaced, and the rest of hockey and basketball have vanished entirely. The Indianapolis 500, which annually puts 250,000 souls in a confined, if sprawling, place, will likely be next. We'll have to see. This is an undiscovered country we are in, and there are no signposts.

In the meantime, we'll wait for 2021, and the resumption of running and jumping and throwing and throwing hands, of another 500 broken swimming records, of the U.S. taking on the world in a game it invented (basketball) but which the world has made its own, And, of course, of tiny waifs tumbling and rowers rowing and archers archer-ing, and everything else we've come to love about the Olympics.

We'll wait for 2021, and better days than these.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Tampa Tommy

Now that has a ring to it, right?

("Bite me hahd," Boston Sully replies.)

Still: Tampa Tommy. (Tip of the hat to the Pat McAfee Show for that.) It flows. It alliterates like a boss. It rolls off the tongue like a marble on, well, marble.

Look, don't mind me. I'm just cogitating here. Just focusing the future, on the far side of our National Outbreak -- which, with every passing day, feels more and more like we're all trapped in the early chapters of a Stephen King novel.

("Hey! Leave me out of this," Mr. King replies.)

Anyway ... I'm looking at next February. I'm looking at Super Bowl LV. and the possibility that Tampa Tommy Brady has led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to it.

I know. It seems far-fetched, sort of. The Buccaneers, after all, were a pedestrian 7-9 last season. They had the fourth-worst scoring defense in the league. A 42-going-on-43-year-old Tom Brady is going to come in and fix all that?

Well ... maybe.

Consider: While the Buccaneers were 7-9, six of their nine losses were by a touchdown or less. And, statistically, they had the best run defense in the NFL. And the other day, without warning, the Rams released three-time All-Pro running back Todd Gurley, who's still only 25 and likely still has some juice left in him ...

You see where I'm going here.

What if Gurley, intrigued by playing with Brady, signs with the Bucs? And what if Antonio Brown finally gets his life together and decides he, too, might like to play with Brady again after briefly doing so in New England?

Brown, after all, grew up in Miami. Returning to his home state might appeal. And if anyone can keep him in line, it would be Brady.

To be sure, that's a lot of ifs. But imagine Brady throwing to A.B. and utilizing Gurley as both a running back and pass-catcher out of the backfield.

In 2017 and 2018, remember, Gurley caught 123 passes for a combined 1,368 yards and 10 touchdowns. And he caught 31 more for 207 yards and two scores last season. Think even AARP Brady couldn't do something with that?

I'm not sayin', mind you. I'm just sayin'.