Last Tuesday I sat at my office desk contemplating the idea of sporting events being played in empty arenas.
If this was the worst thing that came out of coronavirus, well, it wasn’t the end of the world.
The shelves of our local Trader Joe’s were stocked and we had plenty of toilet paper.
We could laugh back then and I still remember last Tuesday like it was yesterday.
Things changed fast.
Way back four days ago the notion of playing the NCAA Tournament with empty seats still could make me grin as I revisited covering plenty of first-day, mid-day regional games played in front of stat crews, marching bands and lamp posts.
Last Tuesday was still a semi-normal time when I could put forth the notion that, when you think about it, most organized sports in the world are played, in front of nobody, with orange slices for halftime.
It wasn’t going to be so bad.
Virtually all organized youth activities, from AYSO to Little League, are played in the relative quiet of a ball field minus the obligatory obnoxious parent barking out orders from behind the coach’s bench.
A perfectly fine, light-feel coronavirus story was still possible as I recounted the misty-colored, sparsely-attended venues of my past.
The Oakland Athletics, for example, never let crowd size get in their way.
The As won three straight World Series in the 1970s titles with a star-studded collection of players—Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi…
The 1973 World Champions drew an average of 12,355 fans per game.
You might think that would ignite a ticket spike in Oakland the next year but it didn’t as the A’s drew 10,441 on their way to a second consecutive crown.
Well, now, that did get people excited as spectators poured into Oakland Alameda Coliseum at an average clip of 13,278 fans per game.
We’re sorry to report, all these years later, that nothing much has changed in Oakland.
Empty stadiums never bothered me, in fact, I rather preferred them.
My favorite team growing up was the California Angels, who offered at Anaheim Stadium one of the most fan-intimate experiences in the history of sports.
The 1974 team finished in last place but featured two of the greatest pitchers of the decade-Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana.
The Angels, in 1974, averaged 11,255 fans per game. In 1975, it jacked to 13,145 before falling back to 12,429 in 1976.
I was conflicted in those days between wanting the Angels to do well, but not so well that they would interrupt my personal relationship with every usher and vendor.
I grew up in La Habra, about 20 minutes from the stadium, and there were many nights when I achieved my goal of leaving my house at 7:05 for a 7:35 game and being in my seat for first pitch.
Weirdly, when the Angels got “popular” in the late 1970s, averaging 31,155 fans during the 1979 run to the AL West title, I attended only a few games.
My love affair was over.
Who were all these front-runners? Where were they in ’74?
My fancy for empty stadium-play followed me into my professional career when I was assigned, by the L.A. Times, in 1983, to cover the Los Angeles Express of the fledgling United States Football League.
The doomed franchise played their games in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum, which seated about 90,000 in those days.
Near the end of the team’s three-year run, in May of 1985, the Express hosted the Denver Gold before an announced crowd of 3,059.
We disputed that number in the press box and began an immediate hand-count of the premises and came up with approximately 1,500 patrons, not including Roger Owens the famous peanut man.
My column about playing games in empty arenas came to a screeching half late in the week when, virtually, the entire sporting calendar was suspended or canceled.
It was a dark and ominous pivot and suddenly the shelves at Trader Joe’s got emptier.
The streets of my city are quiet as a thick, unknowing uncertainty hangs in the air.
We are now scrambling to fill daily programming as we exchange our best Netflix binge ideas.
The absurdity of the situation hit home the other night as my son and I, perhaps subconsciously needing to fill our television sporting void, found ourselves watching a 1932 “baseball” movie starring Joe E. Brown.
It was somehow titled “Fireman, Save My Child” with the screwball premise of the rubber-mouthed Brown being torn between wanting to be a fireman while invention hocking an exploding baseball that extinguishes fires, or a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.
To my recollection, in the movie, he never saved anyone’s child.
Brown, though, would race from the pitcher’s mound in the middle of a game if he heard the sound of a fire-engine siren.
My son and I looked at each other 20 times during the film and said “What the...?”
These are now the times in which we live: quarantined, fighting for toilet paper, sneaking one-eyed peeks at Twitter as we search for ways to kill two weeks, or more.
For lack of a better way to get out of this story I will only add, not knowing how long this present crisis will last, that we have taped two more Joe E. Brown baseball movies for future, if not immediate, viewing: “Elmer, The Great,” and “Alibi Ike.”
Strange days, indeed.