Mark Zeigler: Why sports fans feel so ungrounded in the age of COVID-19

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 13: A general view during the fourth quarter of the game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Inglewood, California. - Harry How/Getty Images North America/TNS

SAN DIEGO — We haven’t seen blue skies in more than a week, a high band of smoke from wildfires mixing with clouds and the marine layer to create a soupy, eerie haze. The sun looks like Jupiter, an otherworldly orange orb, as it rises and sets through horizontal streaks of clouds, the usual blue and green wavelengths of light refracted by the smoke particles while the reds sneak through to cast an apocalyptic pall.

It is disorienting, distressing, dispiriting, discombobulating.

The weather matches our mood.

If you are a sports fan, you understand. If you have mastered the art of extracting the sports page one-handed from the newspaper without ruffling the other sections, if you know how many no-hitters the Padres have in franchise history, if you can compute Kawhi Leonard’s player efficiency rating without a calculator, if the “Monday Night Football” theme music is your cellphone’s ring tone, you are nodding.

No March Madness, no Wimbledon, no Boston Marathon for the first time since 1897, no high school football, a postponed Summer Olympics …

The sports world is upside down and sideways. Sports fans are upside down and sideways.

Throughout history, mankind has ordered life with calendars. Agricultural calendars based on planting and harvesting. Religious calendars based on holidays. Government calendars based on work schedules. And, more recently, sports calendars based on league seasons and major events and television windows.

We know it’s spring because of March Madness and opening day in baseball. We know it’s May because of the Kentucky Derby, Memorial Day weekend because of the Indy 500, Father’s Day because of golf’s U.S. Open, fall because of the World Series, New Year’s Day because of college bowl games.

It provides structure to life’s chaos and uncertainty. Ritual. Renewal. Expectation. Order.

Hope.

But what happens when the calendar suddenly goes dark? What happens when that sequence is interrupted or jumbled or reconfigured?

The Indy 500 in August, the Stanley Cup Finals in September, the NBA Finals in October, the Masters in November …

“It’s disruptive,” Joseph Price says. “It creates not only a disorientation, it creates a kind of malaise. I have been having more trouble thinking creatively in this time than I normally do. Where does inspiration or creativity come when there seems to be the loss of a center?”

He’s not talking about the guy who snaps the football.

“The dislocation, the disorientation that’s being experienced during COVID-19 and the disruption of sports seasons causes a kind of lack of coherence and familiarity,” Price continues. “The absence of a structure means that everything is a surprise and nothing seems able to be grounded. … How will we know where the ground is? What will provide the floor for our moving about daily through life?”

Who is Joseph Price?

There may not be a more qualified meteorologist to describe sport’s atmospheric conditions this year. He understands sports, as the co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Baseball Studies at Whittier College and a guy who has belted out the national anthem at more than 100 major or minor league ballparks. He understands religion, being a professor emeritus of religious studies at Whittier.

And he understands sports as religion in America, having authored a book on the subject, “Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America (Sports and Religion).”

“I had to make sense of my own passion,” Price says.

One chapter is devoted to examining the significance of the sports calendar, how it “orients followers to the mythic origin and density of the sport and, by extension, themselves,” how “the rhythm of the seasons is the measure by which they order their lives.”

Now, suddenly, golf’s U.S. Open is teeing up this week instead of June. Now the Tour de France is snaking through tiny roads in Provence in September instead of July. Now the order of horse racing’s Triple Crown is not the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont; it’s Belmont, Derby and Preakness and it ends in October.

But at least they’re running for the roses, or just running at all, even if it’s four months late. From mid-March through early June, there were no sports in America.

The shutdown came at a most inopportune time, on the eve of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The secret of March Madness is that it’s a 68-team, single-elimination bracket with Cinderellas and buzzer-beaters and wacky mascots. The secret is also that it’s in March.

“It’s either a brilliant stroke of luck or brilliant stroke of genius that it came together when it did,” Andrew Yiannakis, a New Mexico professor who studies the sociology of sport, told me a few years back for a story about the tournament’s significance. “There seems to be something about spring that excites us. The psychology of man needs to express itself with the coming of spring, coming out of the darkness into the light, symbolic death and symbolic rebirth.

“We get antsy in the spring, don’t we? We want to do things that open new doors. We take more risks and chances. We clean out our closets because we see it as a new era, a new phase in our lives, and I think the basketball (tournament) helps capture this nicely.”

Whittier’s Price unfailingly started his day by bypassing the front page of the newspaper for the sports section. For three months, he did the crossword puzzle instead.

The good news, as jumbled and disorienting as the sports calendar has become, is that there are box scores to follow again. Baseball’s playoffs, despite a truncated regular season, despite the absence of fans, despite a designated hitter in the National League, will take place in their regular spot in October. The NFL season opened on time over the weekend.

That’s huge. We need the smoke to clear, the malaise to dissipate, the uncertainty to abate. We need to be grounded again. We need ritual, renewal, expectation, order.

Hope.

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune