If eliminating sports can assure us of health, OK

John Gilbert

Twenty players from Dick Swanson’s Denfeld softball team sat together for the emotional service for their beloved coach at Wade Municipal Stadium. Photo by John Gilbert.

If you think this Major League Baseball season is weird, shortened to 60 games and no fans allowed in any ballparks because of the Covid-19 pandemic, you’re right.

Despite the presence of the incredibly annoying piped-in music and crowd chants to make these otherwise adult athletes pretend there are big crowds watching them, the competition has been very entertaining and mostly good.

And the Minnesota Twins were among the leaders in all of baseball, [posting a 20-10 record at the halfway point.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are full-steam ahead, with teams locked away in quarantine-like settings in either Edmonton or Toronto. Those games have featured wildly exciting and mostly close, nail-biting games, and they will continue on through this week’s resumption of the East and West semifinals, and then they will proceed to the division finals, and then, sometime around Halloween, the finals. No fans, but more of that annoying piped in rhythmic organ music and chanting. The marketing folks in the NHL don’t seem to realize that once the puck is dropped, the players go at each other without even realizing whether there are any fans or not.

And maybe you ruined in to watch last Sunday’s 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, and things got a lot weirder, because normally the first 25 years that I attended and wrote about the Indy 500, crowds of 300,000 made it the biggest sports event in the country, if not the world, and the 150,000 or more who attended the first qualifying days made one-at-a-=time Indy 500 qualifying the second-biggest sports event in the country. So to watch the 2020 cars speed around the 2.5-mile oval with no fans in the huge grandstands was beyond weird. It was positively eerie.

In an ironic ending, Scott Dixon, who had the best cat all day, made a tactical move to allow – in fact force – Takumo Sato, a Japanese driver who had won the 2017 500 – take the lead. Dixon and his crew knew that the final portion of the race might come down to a sprint, and whoever had the most remaining fuel on board might win it. Since you can drive at speed with better fuel economy running behind another car, Dixon got behind Sato, and that turned out to be pivotal. Dixon closed in, right behind Sato in a fight to the finish, when a crash occurred on the main straightaway with four laps remaining.

Although there were no injuries, the debris was scattered across much of the track. It was obvious there wasn’t time to clean up the debris, so track officials kept the pace car in front and the field ran a single-file final four laps with no passing. What might have been one of the most exciting finishes in Indy history, with four potential winners nose-to-tail, instead turned out to be a forced single-file parade to the finish. Sato, who won in an Andretti-Honda in 2017, did it this year in a Letterman-Rahal Honda-powered car, co-owned by David Letterman and Bobby Rahal.

But pay attention, because our addiction to sports is about to get a whole lot weirder. Especially in Minnesota. Like most fans, I’ve been primed to hang on and wait, because the pandemic is bound to ease off and if it doesn’t go away, at least it might fade to the point we can go back to filling arenas and filling college and NFL football stadiums every weekend. But not only has that not happened, the disease continues at a deadly pace, with the U.S. leading the world in cases of the virus as well as fatalities from it.

Up here, around Duluth, we’re patiently trying to outwit the disease for the sake of starting football, but now, as August goes into its final week, we’re not sure when colleges will open for classes. As staunch hockey fans, we can hope that it all gets cleared up for our UMD Bulldogs to tackle another rousing season in the NCHC, and I’m still optimistic that will happen, even if we start a couple weeks late. Cut off a few non-league games and we can still get in a good season. Maybe there won’t be any fans allowed, but we need hockey, nonetheless.

In the meantime, you realize how big a deal this is when the Power-5 major college football conferences scramble, weigh all options, and make independent decisions. The Big Ten was first to announce that it would be cancelling its entire football season, and volleyball, soccer and track and field as well. Fans whined, and so did some in the media, but you couldn’t fight the reasoning.

Then the Pac-12 announced the same decision, at about the same time. No football for Washington, Oregon, Southern Cal, Utah, Stanford — none of them!
It seemed to be underlined with some sarcastic form of superiority that officials of the Southeast Conference — Alabama, Auburn, LSU, etc. — and the Atlantic Coast Conference — Clemson, and those guys — announced that they, indeed, will be playing. The Big 12, with Texas, Oklahoma, etc., didn’t say anything, but their silence indicated they intended to play.

We who live in the Big Ten or the Pac-12 areas believe we’ve done the wise thing, the safe thing for the athletes and fans. But it wasn’t unanimous. In fact, a couple different groups of apparently conservative bent have actually sued Gov. Tim Walz for instituting a mandatory mask rule, just to help control the spreading of the virus as much as possible. Nobody knows how effective that will be, but we’ve got to do whatever we can, it seems to me.

Those dissidents apparently want to be like the SEC, the ACC, or the Big 12, and their love of football supersedes their understanding that health and avoiding the potentially fatal disease is more important than a game or two, or a full season.

That doesn’t mean we don’t miss football season, and we felt the pangs a little more as those colleges opened their doors to invite students to come to college and get situated to start the long year.

When summer started, we first heard that the University of Kansas was hit hard by the pandemic, and altered plans while mandating facemarks for everyone on campus, preceding a statewide law. That’s a blow for the Big 12.

Next, Auburn University brought in its vaunted football team a couple of weeks ago, but when they first assembled and were tested, 33 members of the football team and one staff member were found to have Covid-19, sending shockwaves throughout the SEC.

Ten days ago, the University of North Carolina opened its doors to 30,000 students and started preparing for fall semester and, of course, football. But their first testing revealed 137 new cases of Covid-19 to go with 349 more who were quarantined. UNC declared it was suspending its athletes, who may have engaged in a little pre-semester partying without masks or social distancing, and that it was switching all classes to online instead of in-person. A real jolt for the ACC.

Next up came Alabama, the Crimson Tide, pride of the SEC. As the football players showed up, word was that the entire campus population had been tested and it was found only 1 percent of all students had tested positive. Everybody was happy, and a lot of “everybody” hit the campus bars and frat houses and parties. A second testing revealed the shocking fact that the number afflicted was 531 new cases, on top of the 210 previously found with the disease. That meant the percentage afflicted had gone from 1 percent to 29 percent of all students!

It seems almost inevitable that the Southeast Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference will have to make a desperate move to halt the spread and try to contain it. The previous arrogance, or at least smugness, which implied they were the big boys and would play football was gone, and the football season down South appears in serious jeopardy.

While all of that has been going on for the past 10 days, you would think that those of us in Minnesota might be nodding our heads knowingly, a bit smug ourselves that we were right all along. But no! Three different groups in Minnesota are still pursuing lawsuits to restrict Gov. Walz and his bold law-making to mandate masks, statewide. Was he over-stepping his guidelines as governor? Hardly. He was trying to save some lives, and in some cases, trying to save us from ourselves.


Having attended and written about the very neat, warm ceremony to raise signs proclaiming the softball fields outside Wade Stadium are officially renamed “Dick (Swan) Swanson Fields” two weeks ago, it was with shock and sadness that I learned that the cancer Swanny had told us was under control had won its horrible battle and ended his life at age 71. He had said, three days earlier, how he couldn’t wait to get out on the field with Denfeld’s softball players next season on “his” fields.

Last Thursday, Swanny’s family — including his mom, Audrey — and all his relatives and friends showed up for a visitation, followed by the funeral. They were held at Wade Stadium, and Swanny’s casket was positioned right on home plate, under a canopy. Twenty of his Denfeld players were there, and they all were seated in one section of the main grandstand, all wearing masks, and all fighting to avoid being overcome with the emotion of the moment.

All of Swanny’s assistant coaches, past and current, were there, too. Several people spoke, briefly, from a microphone set up on the pitching mound. One of those was Tim Utt, Swanny;s assistant for 28 years and through 299 of his 350 or so victories in softball. Swanson, in fact, might be the only — or one of very few — high school coaches in Minnesota who won over 300 games in both basketball and softball.

You didn’t have to know Swanny to appreciate all he has meant to every player he ever coached. But if you did observe him at work, you realize he was always putting on a clinic of how to coach, how to mold young athletes into a team-first team, and how to keep things light-hearted and fun, win or lose.

They had a couple of appropriate hymns, and they also had a group rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” — completely appropriate, in this case. And when the funeral was over, the family invited the entire gathering to meet outside the third-base exit where they had a wonderful lunch of hot dogs, potato salad, baked beans, and a couple types of brownies. Swanny would have loved it, and we enjoyed it on his behalf.

The draining emotion of the Dick Swanson ordeal, celebration, death and funeral was going to take some time to overcome. But there wasn’t any time. Another long-time sports icon left us last weekend.

Mark Sertich, lifelong Duluthian who gained national fame as the oldest hockey player in the world when he was on national television talk shows as a 97-year-old who had played in the senior men’s tournament in California, died Monday at home at age 99. Always personable, Sertich never saw a hockey rink he didn’t want to go play on. He spent a couple mornings every week getting involved in regular games featuring area firemen and policemen in no-check leagues. His skating had slowed down, but not his determination, and his teammates were amazed how he’d go to the net and knock in any loose pucks he found.

Last round of DECC Hall of Fame committee board members, we talked it over briefly and then inducted Mark Sertich into the hall. It was an honor he and his curly-tipped mustache enjoyed immensely. I’ve enjoyed my time on that Hall of Fame committee, and we night have waited until Sertich actually retired as an active player. But my theory is that was never going to happen, so we should act while we had the chance.