After the sports world quickly shut down during a roughly 24-hour period in March to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, fans (and Seattle Times staffers) have tried to pass the time with stay-at-home activities such as exercise, books, Netflix and cooking.

For most sports fans, it’s probably safe to say none has come close to filling the massive void created by the absence of games and events. With that in mind, and as the sports world gradually begins to return, we share these staff essays and illustrations about what sports means to us:

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Sanctuary after a tragedy

There’s no time for contemplating life, or sports, when racing down an empty highway from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001 with gridlocked cars frantically headed the opposite direction.

You’d awakened to cover an Orioles-Blue Jays series. Then planes hit buildings, and your newspaper — the Toronto Star — sent you to The Pentagon.

Having never visited D.C., and lacking a map, you follow distant smoke plumes and bypass police checkpoints with your Baseball Writers’ Association of America card until you’re in Arlington, Virginia, watching The Pentagon burn. You cover that, then the next day follow around an accommodating guy whose sister, Sharon, is among those missing.

Finally, after additional stories of despair, you tap out, return to Baltimore for a flight not happening, then drive 12 hours home.

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You collapse on your sofa and watch TV footage of the smoldering Pentagon, still smelling its smoke on your clothes. Remaining inside for days, you go online. They’ve found Sharon’s body.

They eventually make you cover baseball again, sending you to New York to write about the playoffs and 9/11 aftermath. Between AL East and interleague play, and jazz weekends you’d spent much of that summer at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel — including two weeks before the planes hit — and the neighborhood’s lingering stench of smoke and decay reminds you that nothing’s the same.

During the World Series you ride the subway angst-ridden over anthrax threats and stand in an hourslong Yankee Stadium security line terrified that President George W. Bush — throwing out the ceremonial Game 3 pitch — will make everyone there a target.

Somehow no one else dies, and the Yankees win to cut the Arizona Diamondbacks’ lead to 2-1.

Still, it seems academic the next night with Arizona up two and one out from a series stranglehold. Then, Tino Martinez drives Byung-Hyun Kim’s pitch deep into every Yankee fan’s game-tying dreams. The grandstands literally shake.

The clock passes midnight into Nov. 1, and Derek Jeter homers in extras, becoming “Mr. November.” You grab sleep, then a late breakfast feeling unusually upbeat and realizing New Yorkers are discussing something besides death and fear.

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That night in Game 5, Kim is again one out away. But Scott Brosius, incredibly, homers to again tie it. The stadium shakes even harder. You gasp out loud.

The Yankees eventually win again. You’ve witnessed consecutive World Series comebacks unlikely to be repeated.

And on it goes. Back in Phoenix, the Diamondbacks force a seesaw Game 7 before Arizona’s Luis Gonzalez ends an iconic Fall Classic with a bloop single off Mariano Rivera.

Like many, you’d sentimentally rooted for the Yankees. But real life isn’t Hollywood. The consolation is knowing fans like you watching this will remember why they love sports.

The on-field stuff won’t negate what’s happened off. But leaving the ballpark that night, you realize it’s OK to feel good again.

— Geoff Baker

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

Lessons have been lost

So I know it’s cliché about fathers and sons bonding over sports. Or maybe coaches and kids. But my dad didn’t really like sports.

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Back in the early ’80s we were on vacation, and Seahawks stars Jim Zorn and Steve Largent (and their families) were lounging around the resort pool. Dad was oblivious. I suspect I was one who pointed out the local celebrities.

Despite Dad (no offense), I always loved sports. It was something about the microcosm of life represented in a season or a game. It was inspiring. And I had no athletic ability. I never played Little League even. Heck, the high-school chess team would have been beyond my jock status.

What did I learn? Dealing with failure was as much what sports was about as was going bananas when your team won a big one. Even the best baseball teams lose 60 times. Super Bowls don’t come along very often. We all know that.

On March 11, a bunch of buddies and I were sitting there in Las Vegas watching the Cougars beat Colorado in the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament. We joked, “It’s the last basketball game in America!” Hours later, yeah, it was. I was shocked.

More than two months later, and life doesn’t feel like life without sports. More than just an escape, we are missing the lessons of success and failure, of improving yourself, of loving your friends, and even just drinking a $12 beer and talking trash.

Dad would get that.

— Rich Boudet

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

Pops is the tops

I was 50 feet from Tiger Woods when he sank the tying putt on the 72nd hole at the 2008 U.S. Open. I was 10 feet from Vince Young when he scored the game-winning touchdown against USC in the 2006 national-championship game.

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I have covered a Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Final, the men’s Final Four and a World Series.

So what do sports mean to me? Easy — they’re what made my father and I so close.

I had a youth replete with fond memories, but most of the best ones involved my dad and a ball.

He was my soccer coach when I was 5 and playing for a team called the Lasers. We scored our only goal of the season in the last game to finish 0-9-1, then celebrated like we had won the title. We used to play Ping-Pong in our backyard on the weekends, where he would torch me with his topspin slam. Finally beating him when I was in my 20s may be my greatest sporting achievement.

The golf course was our primary refuge, as we’d hack it up on tracks all around Southern California. We once spent five minutes looking for his ball on a steep-hilled hole in San Diego, only to find it in the cup.

Not all of the memories were pleasant in the moment. To improve my basketball shooting, he once drew 10 lines in chalk, each two feet behind the previous one. To advance to the next line, I had to make 16 out of 20 shots, and if I made fewer than 14 I had to go back one.

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It seemed like a good idea at the time. Two hours later, I hosed down the driveway in a fit of rage.

Nowadays, of course, I look back at moments such as that and smile. Same is true of countless sports memories of me and Pops, whether it’s him consoling me after my final high-school-basketball game, screaming at the TV during the 1999 Ryder Cup or playing touch football against the neighbors.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of sports’ greatest champions win in the most iconic fashion imaginable. But to me, as far as memories go, they’re all runners-up.

— Matt Calkins

 

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

Big moments, and the routine

Sports in all the ways it can be experienced — playing, watching, listening, reading, writing, debating — has served as a backdrop, if not more often at the forefront, of just about all of my 56 years on this planet.

From black and white TV to HDTV. From waiting until the afternoon paper arrived to see if my favorite player had hit a home run the day before, to following every pitch of a game on a tiny screen. From listening to Bob Blackburn on an AM radio during the final moments of a Sonics game, to being lucky enough to later get paid to write about the Sonics (and Seahawks, Mariners, Huskies and lots of others).

There have been so many memorable moments along the way that it feels like one I’d forgotten about pops into my mind every few hours during these seemingly endless days of waiting for normalcy.

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But maybe more than the memory of any specific play — great as “The Double” or “The Tip” were and always will be — what we may miss most about sports right now is the routine.

The comfort in the memory of trips to the ballpark with your dad or mom. The anticipation in the excitement of the next trip with your son or daughter.

Moments for a lifelong Seattle/state of Washington sports fan/follower like me that will resonate forever, such as:

— Rainy Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Husky Stadium and CenturyLink Field, when the crowd always seems to just be a little bit louder.

Snowy afternoons in Pullman when the same always seems to be true.

Sonics games at the Kingdome when you could always get in the door.

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— Whole new meanings to the term rye bread. And apples. And catfish. And magic carpet rides. And being a good sport.

— Hip Hop Hooray.

— Rick the Peanut Man and Bill the Beerman. The Wheedle and Squatch and Dubs and Taima and Blitz and Butch and the Moose.

— QBs, from Zorn to Tui to Russell, who never gave up on a play.

— The playing of “Been Caught Stealing” after The Glove had committed thievery yet again.

— Tequila and the “Jaws” theme.

— Lob passes to the Reign Man, and the LOB denying every pass in the rain.

— Or should we say, from the Sonic Boom of the ’70s to the Legion of Boom of the 2010s.

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— 6 and 12 and 80 and one number that has been retired twice, 24, and maybe will be someday again.

— From Chris Gobrecht to Kelsey Plum and a program that is among the many in the area that has long proven that sports know no gender.

May the games and the moments return soon.

— Bob Condotta

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

A feeling or normality

I could lie about what sports mean to me. I could romanticize about the brotherhood of being part of a team and the journey of a season. I could write about strengthening my relationship with my dad, who always pointed to Edgar Martinez’s line drives to right-center as the example when he offered me hitting advice in high school.

It might be more comfortable that way.

But for me, from when I was first able to participate in sports, organized or on the playground and in backyards with my friends, they have allowed me to combat what at times felt like paralyzing insecurity and shyness.

My oft-perceived personality of arrogance, indifference and, “Why does he act like he’s some sort of Old West cowboy?” from a former boss belies a discomfort and fear of interacting with strangers. And without sports, I wouldn’t have been able to counter those issues during the formative years of my life and even at times today.

Growing up in a small Montana town, there is no self-realization that you’re different in terms of appearance or heritage. It’s pointed out to you. Not all of it is malicious or with bad intent. It was just kids in the early 1980s.

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There are five Japanese families in the town. And we all know each other. My mom was a Sasaki, and my dad, well, he could sunburn and freckle on a cloudy day. And me? I was combination of both — dark hair, brown skin that got much darker in the summer with a little different eyes and appearance than my friends. Some people asked if I was Native American. Others simply said, “What are you?” Embarrassed to tell people, I said nothing or deflected with humor.

From first grade to middle school, I hated feeling that I was different. It made me feel self-conscious and awkward. It made me uncomfortable being around people I didn’t know or trust. It led to a false bravado, of brashness and self-confidence in social situations while I was terrified inside. All I wanted to do was be like everyone else.

Sports provided the normality I craved. It didn’t matter if you looked different — you didn’t feel it when you were playing. It mattered only that you could play and compete — a simple requirement. I wasn’t better or worse at baseball, basketball, football or whatever we were playing with those kids, many of whom I would later call my friends. I was the same, or at least I felt it. I began to seek out those situations to continue that feeling. The more I played, the more acceptance of myself I found.

Sports helped me understand my identity and gave me real confidence in who I am while alleviating some of my fear of personal interaction. It’s still needed today. It’s why I sought a sports-related career. My closest nonworking friends in this area have come from sports — playing pickup basketball and fast-pitch softball. They provide social situations that I would otherwise avoid. I can’t imagine where I would be as a person without sports in my life.

— Ryan Divish

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In need of some silliness

Reduced to their most basic elements, team sports can be hard to wrap one’s brain around. It seems rather silly to get worked up over other people’s ability to hit a sphere, or throw a ball through a hoop, or advance an oblong hunk of leather down a patch of grass as opponents try to obliterate him.

And even sillier to attribute community pride to the success of those actions, just because those people, who hail from all over the country, if not the world, happen to wear — for now, maybe not next year — the uniform of your city. You’re essentially rooting for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld famously observed.

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This pandemic — which has shut down so many activities, including organized athletics — has certainly driven home the point that sports are something we can live without. Because we are doing just that, and life goes on.

But paradoxically, it is also revealing just how much of a hold sports have on our psyche, and our soul. Yes, life goes on, but with a definite void, an emptiness, even a yearning. Turns out that the silliness of sports is actually a major source of diversion, of exhilaration, and of kinship. We need it more than we would have ever imagined.

In other words, sports matter. Not literally, but in a visceral and psychological sense. The presence of teams to root for, of men and women with transcendent skill to marvel over, of victories to savor and losses to rue, is a huge vicarious rush that adds texture and enjoyment to life. There’s even science to back up that notion.

That’s why people have eagerly consumed any morsel of sports, no matter how bizarre (the Stupid Robot Fighting League, anyone?) — even if they happened 20 years ago, or longer.

This is a golden age of nostalgia. To flip the dials these days is to navigate a nonstop gauntlet of games completed long ago, in any sports you might fancy. Some are so old you can’t remember the result, which is actually a desirable outcome because it reignites the rush of sports, the best non-scripted entertainment on television.

The ratings for the drafts of the WNBA and NFL were record-breaking. I’m sure I’m not alone in staying up to watch Korean baseball, the first live-action, real-time sporting event in weeks — not counting those robots.

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In this shelter-at-home era, the old saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is overruled by its contradictory counterpart: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” at least when it comes to sports.

Those goofy, intrinsically meaningless sporting events that have been so abruptly taken away? Turns out that many of us really can’t live without them. I mean, we can and have — but it’s a life of reduced enjoyment.

— Larry Stone

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(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

A miracle, a magnet and ugly tears

This is a love story.

And, spoiler alert: it ends in utter agony, with a 9-year-old boy involuntarily sobbing in the unfamiliar foyer of a family friend. It ends with ugly tears and a season-saving tackle.

It starts with a miracle (and a magnet).

More specifically, it starts on Jan. 8, 2000, in the fourth quarter of an AFC wild-card game between the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills. With Buffalo 16 seconds from a 16-15 win, Steve Christie sent a short kickoff to the Tennessee 24-yard line. It was fielded by a 255-pound snow plow named Lorenzo Neal, who took five steps to his right and handed the ball to Frank Wycheck. The Titans tight end took five more steps to his right, swiveled and whipped a wobbler to wide receiver Kevin Dyson — who stood alone on the opposite sideline.

You might remember the rest.

Dyson followed a caravan of blockers 75 yards untouched into the end zone. The Adelphia Coliseum came this close to cracking, toppling over and sinking like a triumphant Titanic into the nearby Cumberland River. It was submerged in wave after delirious wave of drunken disbelief.

Final score: Titans 22, Bills 16. It was dubbed “The Music City Miracle.”

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Nearly 500 miles away, I fell in love.

Granted, this was also illogical. I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, rooting for the White Sox and the Bulls and the Bears and the Blackhawks. I had never been to Nashville, and I didn’t care for country music. I couldn’t — and still can’t? — point to Tennessee on a map.

It didn’t matter. I fell like Forrest Gump when he heard Jenny’s voice in the back of the bus. It was instant and overwhelming and, unfortunately, incurable. I loved Steve McNair and Eddie George and Derrick Mason and Kevin Dyson and Jevon Kearse. I loved the Titans’ uniforms — a barrage of beautiful blues. As Jaime Lannister said in Game of Thrones, “We don’t choose whom we love.”

I didn’t just board the bandwagon; I bought a Big Gulp and demanded to drive.

And, three weeks later, I crawled crying out of the wreckage. The Titans had just fallen to the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, 23-16. On the final play, McNair found Dyson across the middle, and he was tackled 1 yard shy of a tying touchdown. There were no more miracles to go around.

At a family friend’s watch party, surrounded by strangers, I’m embarrassed to say I made a scene. It wasn’t a silent tear or two. It was blubbering, heaving heartbreak. These were “Good Will Hunting” it’s-not-your-fault tears; “Mystic River” is-that-my-daughter-in-there tears; “Castaway” Wilson-where-are-you tears; “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” how-come-he-don’t-want-me tears.

Two decades later, my parents still have the Super Bowl magnet I made at school before the game. I look at that thing — dirty, poorly drawn, an artistic abomination — and I notice much more than the obvious misspelling of “Tennessee.” It’s a relic from a past relationship — and proof of the power of sports.

The Super Bowl magnet Mike Vorel made at age 9.   (Photo courtesy of Mike Vorel)
The Super Bowl magnet Mike Vorel made at age 9. (Photo courtesy of Mike Vorel)

Sports, after all, are just love stories in stadiums — and we don’t choose whom we love. It can be the Seahawks or the Huskies or the Mariners or the Sounders. It can be any team at any time. In truth, it doesn’t matter.

We give them our hearts and our dreams and our time and our money. We hope for miracles and brace for misery.

And if we’re lucky, they love us back.

— Mike Vorel