It’s taken me awhile to get into them, but sports are back! Kind of, sort of, that is.
As I type this fall college sports are looking nervously at the drain, aware that a hand is lingering near the handle to flush them away to 2021.
But the pros have been keeping us entertained for a few weeks now. And it has been surprisingly good.
Golf was the first major American sport back, and had a glorious weekend with the first major championship of the year, the PGA Championship played at Harding Park in San Francisco. Twenty-three year old Collin Morikawa, just over a year after turning pro, won his first major with a sublime back nine Sunday.
Morikawa was in the middle of an extraordinarily packed leaderboard when he mis-hit a wedge on the 14th hole, coming up short of the green. Hoping to just get close so he could salvage a par, he chipped in to take the lead at –11. Two holes later he hit a legendary tee shot. Where others kept trying to fade the ball over the trees to the reachable par four, Morikawa took a little off his standard cut, bounced the ball just short of the green, and rolled it to six feet. He banged in his eagle putt and the tournament was his. He damn near holed a 30-foot birdie putt on 17 just to clown with people.
It was a dazzling end to a fantastic tournament. At least 120 guys had a chance to win on Sunday. Well, more like 12 or so, but it was a lot. Morikawa was the only one who could bust through, and he did it with absolute aplomb. He was the least heralded of last year’s three college megastars who turned pro together, largely because Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland played on one of the greatest college teams ever at Oklahoma State. All three have wins in their first year on the tour – Wolff also had a chance Sunday and is lamenting three putts that just missed – but Morikawa now has three wins including a major. The future of golf is good.
What was greatest about the weekend was ESPN’s coverage of the tournament. ESPN doesn’t get too many chances to show golf, but they balled out. Scott Van Pelt and David Duval were soooo good in their hosting duties. Duval never strikes me as a dynamic personality on his Golf Channel work. I don’t know whether Van Pelt drew it out of him or he was just more relaxed, but he was like a totally different guy. He provided great insight, was sneakily funny, and even gently roasted a few players. The network managed to show both the stars and the developing stories. Their on-air-talent was entertaining, informative, and humorous without being distracting.
In certain circles of the golf media universe, people love to kill CBS for how bad they are at broadcasting golf. ESPN gave people who complain exactly what they have been craving. I hope they can repeat the weekend’s performance when they take over non-network coverage of most PGA events in 2022.
Oh, and all PGA’s and US Opens should be played on the west coast. There’s nothing better than turning on golf at 10 AM and having it still on at 10 PM. I didn’t watch every minute of the coverage, but the TV was generally on just about every hour that ESPN and CBS were broadcasting.
The Bubble World NBA has been surprisingly entertaining. The first week I watched a lot; this past week I’ve mostly been watching only when the Pacers are playing. Where golf manages without a crowd – you lose the reactions to dramatic shots you but also lose the idiots who have to yell “GET IN THE HOLE” or “MASHED POTATOES” on every fucking tee shot – I was worried basketball without a crowd would seems sterile and boring. But it’s been alright. Granted, there is some fake crowd noise piped in, along with music and announcers. The Zoom fans are a cool touch, too.
I think what saves it is seeing the benches go nuts on certain plays. Those moments get lost a little when the crowd is going crazy. But when Joel Embiid took another piece of Myles Turner’s soul with a ridiculous dunk in the Sixers-Pacers game, seeing his teammates literally jump over the barrier in front of the bench was awesome.
As a Pacers fan, it has also been a lot of fun watching TJ Warren begin the restart on a ridiculous hot streak. He had some really good moments in the first part of the season, but also seemed to be working to find his place on the team. He’s not an alpha, content to quietly fit in, which made the transition a little more awkward. Something flipped and he’s just been going off. 53 in a win against the Sixers. 39, including a massive three with 11 seconds left to beat the Lakers. He’s been over 30 in every game but one and leads the league in scoring in Orlando.
The Pacers have also been a lot of fun to watch. They’ve been banged up, which has forced them to play small. But it is, mostly, working. I don’t know that they have enough to win a series or two in the playoffs, but at least they are entertaining.
Baseball is also really strange without a crowd. Stadiums designed to hold 30,000–50,000 fans being completely empty gives the games a haunted vibe. Listening on the radio gives the games a spring training vibe, with the voices from the dugout and around the diamond coming through clearly.
With the short season and expanded playoffs, the math for this year is different than any other year. Teams that probably shouldn’t be taking chances to get to the postseason are doing just that in hopes they make the tournament and can then get hot.
The Royals are one of those teams. Brady Singer and Kris Bubic are clearly good enough to be in the big leagues. But I’m not sure it makes sense for the Royals to be burning a year of their big league control of each pitcher in a season in which the Royals are unlikely to contend. Then again, the Royals needed starting pitching and with there being no minor league ball this year, I guess this is the only way to allow their best prospects to keep developing. And I guess it’s a good problem if the Royals are good enough in a few years that they regret starting the service time clocks on these guys early.
For the first two weeks that decision looked especially dumb. The Royals looked pretty bad over the first 12–13 games. But now that they’ve ripped off four-straight wins, including sweeping first place Minnesota, and you start crunching numbers on how they can make the expanded playoffs. They’ve started hitting the ball. The pitching has been solid, especially the bullpen. And they are getting guys healthy.
It’s stupid to get too excited about winning four games (which translates to nearly 11 games in this year’s math). The Royals are still a pretty weak club. And baseball has made so many missteps along the way to reopening that I don’t think anyone has much confidence they won’t have to shut the game down at some point. At least there are games to watch for now.