While I have several feelings about how sports stopped on the international, professional, collegiate, and high school levels, there was one that kept creeping into my two broadcasts at the Jay Higgins Lake Highlands Classic last Thursday, March 12: uneasiness.
The day started with ESPN, ESPN News and FS1 breaking the news that NCAA conference tournaments were canceled and Major League Baseball was suspending Spring Training. As the day went on, the NHL pressed pause on its season, XFL had canceled their inaugural season, and Major League Soccer was suspending its season.
It was a hazy, sunny day in Richardson. The temperature was in the mid-80’s and windy at Berkner Rams’ Ballpark. The teams all knew that there was weather blowing in. However, the chances of getting the two games in were very good.
As is the case with many on-campus tournaments, students attend the games because the teachers of the physical education classes take attendance and let them have some fresh air. Some socialize, some sleep, and others do homework. This was a 2 p.m. start, so most of the lunchtime crowd had already came and went.
At the start of the doubleheader, I am doing my thing: starting lineups, defensive alignments, sponsorship reads, etc. to the general interest of the Rams’ faithful, although Berkner was not playing in the first game. It was the Belton Tigers and the Lakeview Centennial Patriots doing battle on the field.
The first inning went off without a hitch, with the Tigers leading 3-2 at the end of the frame. It was an exciting one, with Ben Jones rapping a double, Caleb Alexander driving Scotty Gurnett home on a single, and Cooper Babcock driving Jones and Alexander across the plate on a double.
Things started to get a little strange on my side of the stands in the second inning. Not like at Georgetown East View Patriot’s Park where the student that fell asleep under my table and when I asked him to please move, he told me to do something anatomically impossible to myself and get my own table. Or even when I asked the one student to please not curse in the vicinity of my microphone, and she flipped me off.
Yes, it was the students. However, for a different reason. The students were asking each other why they were in the stands and why baseball was being played. Especially since there were professional and collegiate sports being canceled at an alarming rate.
These Berkner kids were not wrong. It was a valid question. However, one I was neither prepared to answer nor attempt to.
It took me back to 2001, the week of Sept. 11. It was back when I covered the Jacksonville Jaguars when I lived in Florida. I was two days removed from covering the Jags’ season-opener against Pittsburgh. That was a less-than-convincing 21-3 win over the Steelers. It was one of the most listless football games that I had covered for an opening day.
Jacksonville’s Mark Brunell had thrown for 198 yards on 15 completions and three TDs. Fred Taylor had rushed for 96 yards, and Jimmy Smith caught passes for 126 yards and two scored. All three of the Jags’ touchdowns were in a 10-minute span of the second quarter.
Pittsburgh’s Kordell Stewart had thrown for 181 yards on 21 completions. Amos Zereoue had 60 yards rushing, Stewart added 31, and Jerome Bettis had 28. Hines Ward had 82 yards receiving. The Steelers gave the ball away four times.
Two days later, 9/11 happened. For years, I completely forgot about the Jags-Steelers game. I wondered for the longest time if the NFL would play again in 2001. As a country, things shut down in reflection of our friends, co-workers, and family that were lost in that senseless attack. I lost a Navy shipmate in the attack on the Pentagon who I had seen in Jacksonville just weeks after he had moved to D.C. It galvanized us as a country, and we all rallied.
The way the country roared after the NFL took the week off was unbelievable.
They returned to Alltel Stadium on Sept. 23 to play their AFC Central rivals, the Tennessee Titans. It was a whole different attitude and energy.
The game was closer than the Steelers game, as the Jaguars defeated Tennessee 13-6. Brunell had a better game, throwing for 235 yards. Stacey Mack had the lone touchdown and rushed for 80 yards. Smith had 87 yards receiving.
My mind snapped back to the next inning, when Belton got a sacrifice fly from Cooper Babcock to lift the Tigers’ lead to 4-2. Centennial answered in the bottom of the inning with a two-run double by Dylan Hill to tie the game at 4-4.
At the end of the second inning, a new set of students filed into the stands, a basketball class. They were not nearly as engaged as the previous class was. These kids talked more of music, picking up girls and what they were doing after school.
Meanwhile, on the field, the Tigers and the Patriots continued to get after things. Gurnett smacked a two-run double to give Belton a 6-4 lead. As the basketball class filed out and the final physical education class of the day filled the stands, the murmurs started again questioning why baseball was going on and why the students weren’t out of school.
The noise was briefly drowned out by a sixth-inning rally that saw the Patriots rally from down 7-4 with a three-run rally shortly the Tigers got the final out and time expired.
As the Berkner students left the stands at the end of the game, the Rams’ team entered the vacated dugout on the first base side to play the Tigers.
By game time, half the stands were filled with Tiger fans that made the trip and very few Berkner fans stayed for the game.
The wind died down for much of the game. However, it did not stop my mind from asking the question: “How are we still playing?”
Belton played more solid baseball, as they scored a run in the first and second innings to support Chase King’s good start on the hill.
My mind started to wander again, feeling like I have been in a similar position to this. It became clear that I had.
The scene was on July 27, 2002, in Tallahassee, FL. Things were in flux, as the several of the arena 2 Football League franchises had announced that they would be ceasing operations. This was after the league jumped from 15 teams to 36 teams over a three-year period.
I had worked for the Jacksonville Tomcats as a studio host in 2000, a road color analyst in 2001 and both play-by-play and color analyst in 2002. I had taken over as the full-time road play-by-play man when longtime Jaguars’ beat writer Vic Ketchman left the Tomcats for Jacksonville’s NFL training camp.
At the time, Jacksonville was in a state of instability. The Jacksonville Coliseum had fallen into disarray despite having some of the best attendance numbers in the league. Steve Umberger, who owned the team at the time, continued to work with the city and the league on the new building while the season carried on.
The 2002 home season was extremely successful for the Tomcats, as they went 5-3 at the Coliseum. One of the wins followed an extremely embarrassing 19-14 loss at Columbus (Ga.), who went 0-16 in 2001 and lost their first game of 2002 at Florida (Estero, FL).
However, the Tomcats were snake-bitten on the road with a 3-5 record.
What would end their final game in the history of the franchise was at the Leon County Civic Center on July 27, 2002.
The Tomcats built up a huge lead before the Thunder rolled back into the game. During the fourth quarter, Tallahassee scored three touchdowns to pull within three points.
The Thunder got a late stop to force Jacksonville into a field-goal attempt from midfield, which equated to a 33-yard field goal, with just under a minute remaining in regulation.
Jacksonville pulled a fake field goal and ran for a first down. The Tomcats ran out the clock and secured what was to be the franchise’s final win.
With the uncertain future of the team, Umberger petitioned the league to suspend operations for the 2003 season to allow for the construction to continue on the new Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a 15,000-seat capacity venue. The fledgling league rejected the request. Umberger could not find a set of interested owners in buying the team and decided to fold the team.
As the baseball game between the Tigers and Rams went on, I got this sinking feeling that I may be potentially watching, and broadcasting, the final game of the season for the Tigers.
Belton rallied for two runs in the fifth inning and sent 12 batters to the plate in the sixth inning, having scored six runs to take a 10-0 lead.
King shut down the Rams in the final inning to earn the Tigers a 10-0 win.
As I packed up the broadcast equipment (as I do after any broadcast), I kept asking myself, “Is this it? Is this truly the way that the 2020 season will end? With the opening of Lake Belton High School coming up later this summer, is the ending of this chapter of Belton Baseball really going to end like this?”
About three hours later, I had gotten word that the Jay Higgins Lake Highlands Classic had been canceled. Mainly because the weather made the Lake Highlands and Richardson High School fields unplayable. Some of which, no doubt, had to do with COVID-19.
With the baseball and softball seasons now on hold for at least two weeks, and possibly longer, the pandemic of COVID-19 forced a dynamic shift in the Belton High School spring sports plans. Not only are athletics affected, but academic contests are also affected by the UIL suspension of activities.
As a country, we can only do what is right and look after one another. Uncertainty in sports is a daily occurrence, and working harder is how you work through the uncertainty.
Life’s uncertainties require a ton more understanding, education and careful planning. COVID-19 is definitely a virus that we are being educated on daily, and we have to understand the complexities. While there is no certain timeframe on when we can get back to enjoying sporting lives, we have to understand the future that we face and plan to live our lives better after this pandemic passes.
Praying for the health of everyone out there during these uneasy times.