Coronavirus Helps Remind us Just How Important Sports Are at all Levels

We were just getting started on this yearlong journey to shed light on everything Minor League Baseball and small town America has to offer when the country and the entire world was all but shut down due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 or “COVID-19.”  Getting right to the point, I am not a doctor, I don’t know how long this health crisis will last, and I am not going to comment on what should or should not be happening by those in government. Taking those factors into consideration, we’ve decided that our goal here at Small Ball America is to continue to write these blogs and prepare for our journey this summer, whenever it takes place.  The reality is, “this too shall pass.” I am in no way being insensitive to the situation or trying to minimize it in any way, but there is not a lot that can be done other than following the guidelines set by those in government and doing our best to stay healthy. So, we will continue spreading our message as it pertains to the minor leagues and small town America, because eventually, life will get back to normal.  

As I write this, professional sports at every level have been shut down for the foreseeable future.  For that matter, most large gatherings of any kind have been shut down, cancelled, rescheduled, etc… Just considering my four plus decades on this earth, I can only think of perhaps two times when something this big has taken place and changed the perceived and actual normalcy of people’s everyday lives.  Those incidents would of course be the attacks of September 11th, and the Great Recession. There have been other, more localized events that have devastated communities, like Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy, as well as the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, just to name a few. These events shut down sports and changed the trajectory of some people’s lives, but those were more localized tragedies.  I cannot think of another time in our country’s history when sports, all sports, were shut down indefinitely with the intent to start back up at a time unknown to anyone. During times of tragedy, sports are one of the most important institutions Americans turn to in order to decompress and forget the problems of the day, if only for a few hours. That option doesn’t exist this time, and it may help people to remember and perhaps better understand the exceedingly important role sports play in all communities, regardless of size.

After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, most major sports leagues playing at the time briefly paused their seasons for about a week.  When those leagues resumed play, Americans were ready to begin the process of moving forward, while at the same time remembering the tragedies that took place.  Sports helped us heal as a nation. I will never forget NFL players sprinting onto the field with American flags raised, or MLB players wearing the caps of the NYPD and NYFD.  Listening to the Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sing God Bless America at Yankee Stadium sent tears rolling down my face every time his voice echoed off that cavernous old cathedral that fall.  And lastly, regardless of one’s political leanings, seeing our Commander in Chief throw a bullet from the top of the mound before game 3 of the World Series with rubble still smoldering in New York City, did more to lift the soul of our country than anything he could have said at a press conference.  Sports helped all of us to heal and be proud of who we were during that time of great sadness and uncertainty. This healing took place on a national level and many, many people were invigorated by what sports provided any and all who sought normalcy.

Just over a decade ago, America had to deal with another disaster that shook our country to the core, that of course being the financial crisis known as the Great Recession.  During this period sports didn’t shut down at any point, which was a good thing as people all over the country needed a break from the bleak news being reported day after day.  Sports at all levels and in every corner of the United States gave Americans the escape they so desperately needed. Fans were able to go to MLB and NFL stadiums, NBA and NHL courts and rinks, and NASCAR tracks, PGA golf events, and the list goes on.  Some fans also gained a new or better appreciation for minor league sports during this time as well. There’s nothing like losing your job, your savings, or living through a full blown recession to boost one’s appreciation for $8 box seats. During this period of economic hardship in our country, Major League Baseball saw a decline in attendance of nearly 7%, whereas Minor League Baseball saw a decline of just under 3% in overall average attendance.  People still needed sports, whether it was the big leagues or their local minor league franchises.  

Those are two examples when the entire country was shaken to the core and sports at every level, but particularly major league sports, played a crucial role in our healing.  But, there have been countless instances when sports at lower levels, minor league sports, played just as important a role for people trying to heal from a crisis. One of the best examples of this took place just last year in Dayton, Ohio after nine members of the Dayton community perished in a mass shooting.  This senseless tragedy left citizens scared and wondering if life would ever again be normal for them. However, almost overnight, the strong and resilient people of Dayton began their healing by gathering as a community in places like churches, homes, and restaurants. But perhaps the largest single gathering of healing souls in Dayton, Ohio took place just after the horrific event, at Fifth Third Field.  Between double-header games, Dragons players laid nine roses at home plate in front of a packed house to commemorate the lives of the nine community members lost just the day before. Consider this, just under 10% of the entire population of the city showed up to a low single-A baseball game less than twenty-four hours after suffering through one of the biggest tragedies in the town’s history, to grieve their losses together.  A minor league baseball game provided the outlet needed for the people of Dayton, Ohio that day.

Another example of minor league baseball bringing people together in a time of crisis was seen last year as well in Davenport, Iowa.  Most of eastern Iowa saw nearly one hundred days or more of the Mississippi River over flood stage. With this flooding came around $2 billion dollars in damage to eastern Iowa.  The devastation to downtown Davenport and the surrounding areas, including everything around Modern Woodman Park, was overwhelming. It seemed like the footage of the barriers failing to hold back Mississippi flood waters could be seen for weeks on the national news.  Still, after the initial major flooding had ceased, but with barricades still in place, citizens of Davenport and the entire Quad Cities decided enough was enough. Even though the harsh reality of the 2019 floods were still clearly visible, River Bandits fans were able to find comfort at a ball game.  Due to the millions of dollars invested by River Bandits ownership and the city of Davenport, the stadium and field were never really at risk during the flooding. Therefore, as soon as it was safe to return to Modern Woodman Park, the people of Davenport did. Again, a low single-A baseball team provided the refuge so desperately needed by the citizens of Davenport and the surrounding areas.

It’s hard for me to discuss all that minor league baseball provides people and communities throughout the country without selfishly thinking about what my hometown Clinton Lumberkings have provided our local community year after year.  Sports probably has its biggest impact on people at a personal, almost micro level. I could not quantify or calculate the number of times in my life when I was dealing with a personal hardship and decided going to a Lumberkings game was the best way to clear my head, and I know many others feel the same way.  That said, we in Clinton have had our own tragedies to overcome as well. The most recent time the city came together to grieve took place a year ago when local firefighter Eric Hosette, was killed in the line of duty while on a call to a factory fire. It was a devastating and heartbreaking time for his family and friends as well as his fellow firefighters and the city of Clinton as a whole.  The ceremony that took place on the day of the funeral happened just outside the walls of NelsonCorp Field. I will never forget walking through the stadium parking lot on that cold January day and seeing fire truck after fire truck from all over Iowa and the Midwest with city names I have never heard of printed on the side. The stadium parking lot was about the only place big enough to house all of the trucks who wanted to be part of the ceremony.  Then, later that summer, in typical Lumberkings style, there was a ceremonial day at the ballpark to celebrate Lieutenant Hosette. His wife and daughter were there, other family members were there, as well as fellow firefighters and the still grieving community. Lumberkings players wore special CFD jerseys that day with the name Hosette on the back of each and every one. The jerseys were auctioned off to raise money for the family. Sports again, our Clinton Lumberkings, helped bring a little normalcy back to the community.

Since they have existed, sports of all kinds and at all levels have helped incalculable scores of people on countless occasions by providing an outlet.  I have always felt that baseball in particular does this better than the other sports for the simple reason that they play every single day. Furthermore, Minor League Baseball not only provides an outlet for people by playing everyday, but it also goes out of its way to let everyone know that all are welcome.  With just the few examples provided in this blog post, one can easily recognize the overwhelming sense of community the minor leagues furnish that is hard to find in so many other facets of life. Baseball at the minor league level is so incredibly personal for many reasons, but perhaps most because everyone knows everyone at these ballparks.  When I walk through the gates to watch my Lumberkings, I know who’s going to scan my ticket and I know they will have a smile. As my wife and I walk to the bullpen area where we like to sit, I know we will see and talk to friends and I will say hello to current and former students working the concessions. Workers will pass us and say things like, “nice night for a ballgame,” or “enjoy yourself tonight.”  Inevitably, we will see Ted Tornow, the Lumberkings GM and hardest working man in MiLB. He will be flying around making sure everything is as it should be. Of course, even in his haste, he will always ask every person he walks by how they are doing, and say, “thanks for coming out.”                

Sports help us get through hardships.  Sports at all levels, minor league sports as well as major league sports.  When the entire country needs to heal, we as Americans tend to turn to teams like the New York Yankees, the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Redwings, Miami Heat, Phoenix Mercury, San Jose Earthquakes and so on.  But, we also turn to teams like the Burlington Bees, Daytona Torugas, Hagerstown Suns, Lancaster JetHawks, and the West Virginia Power. We don’t have the option to turn to any of these teams right now, but one thing that is for  certain, when we can, we will! I expect these stadiums and arenas will be full when this Coronavirus scare is a thing of the past. Americans want things to get back to normal, and one of the best ways to recognize that things are normal in America is to see people cheering on their favorite teams.  Major League teams, minor league teams, high school teams and even, or perhaps especially, their favorite little league teams. Sports at all levels have always helped us to feel normal and heal as a nation. With a little time, they will do so again.

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