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A strange, silent spring: Usual hubbub of busy sports season muffled by coronavirus

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The vernal equinox crept in quietly just before midnight Thursday marking the moment winter died and spring was born.

It’s the moment that the world turns toward warmth and begins building toward budding trees, blooming flowers, bright sun and new life accompanied by the eons-old chorus of wetland tree frogs and the less old, but equally energizing, tumult of kids on baseball diamonds and soccer fields.

But this year, it’s a silent spring.

Not the kind feared by Rachel Carson in 1962 when she wrote a book of that name which warned that pesticides could bring a profound and deadly quiet to the natural world at time when it’s supposed to teem with renewed energy and life.

This silence consists of a profound and deadly quiet on the human world at a time it’s supposed to teem with new energy and life.

It’s a silence imposed by an insidious virus let loose in the land.

It’s called coronavirus and it’s coursing its way across oceans and continents and seeping into every nation, state, city and street.

It kills some, makes some very sick and, strangely, hardly affects others.

But it’s highly contagious and dangerous, especially for senior citizens and those with underlying medical conditions.

It’s so dangerous, cities and towns, states and even nations are shut down to stem the rising tide of disease.

From corporate boardrooms to factory floors and many stores, an uneasy quiet has descended.

The usual hubbub is muffled.

It’s silenced the sound of daily life in all its spheres: government, business, travel, leisure and sports.

Sports

Many Americans are in love with them.

A 2018 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average man spent as many as 5.7 hours per day pursuing sports or other leisure activities.

The average woman wasn’t far behind, spending 4.9 hours in those pursuits.

The bureau does not quantify the hours spent solely on sports, but even if it’s only one, that’s 365 hours a year.

That time could be spent watching sports, playing sports, reading about sports or talking about sports.

The airwaves are alive with sports talk radio in every major city in the land. The internet is awash as well.

Sports are so important that even with coronavirus running rampant, the story of iconic Patriots quarterback Tom Brady leaving New England for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the front page, albeit below the fold.

Few sports stories can do that with a nation and world at risk.

Sports are a monster money-wise, too.

A study published on marketwatch.com in 2017 said Americans spent $100 billion on sports in a recent year.

About half was spent on attending events, the rest was spent on sports equipment and gym memberships.

That’s a lot of money and it doesn’t include all the ads bought during TV and radio sports programming.

A 30-second ad for the 2020 Super Bowl cost $5.6 million, and the game was watched by 102 million people, about one-third of the U.S. population.

And according to legalsportsbetting.com, about 60 percent of Americans identify as sports fans.

They don’t all bet on sports, but legal sports betting is estimated to be a $150 billion industry, according to the website.

But when spring sprung at 11:50 p.m. Thursday, no one could look forward to sports of any kind. Not to play, to watch to talk about or to bet on. Pros, colleges, high schools or youth leagues.

There would be no March Madness — the annual college basketball tournament that captures the focus of fans from sea to shining sea — it was canceled.

There would be no Boston Marathon, for a while at least — the 100-year-old classic road race from Hopkinton to Boston was postponed.

Major League Baseball’s spring training was canceled and Opening Day delayed.

Opening Day for the Red Sox at Fenway Park was supposed to be on April 2 against the Chicago White Sox.

Now no one knows when or if the season will start.

Seasons were suspended for the surging Celtics and Bruins, whose playoff hopes were high.

The same is true for the New England Revolution.

How long the shutdowns will last no one knows for sure with the number of coronavirus victims going up every day, a trend that shows no signs of abating.

Government is clamping down more and more to control the spread. California is on virtual lockdown.

Gatherings of 25 or more are forbidden in Massachusetts and the National Guard has been called out.

Sports bars have gone dark.

The deafening roar of the fans has evaporated, replaced by the soft sound of a broom brushing an arena floor and the distant crash of closing doors echoing down hard hallways.

One can speculate that pigeons perched on the peaks of Boston’s century-old Fenway Park will wonder in their little bird brains on April 2 where the people are.

Generations of those ever-present avians are accustomed to the annual rhythms of America’s pastime, which begin in the brisk, Back Bay winds of early spring and end in the fast-failing light of a frigid fall.

It’s regular as clockwork, but now it’s not.

Across town in the gleaming TD Boston Garden, the Celtics and Bruins championship banners hang solitary and silent with barely a breath below to budge them.

One dedicated fan, Cliff Danue of Attleboro, summed it up.

“It’s not a good time to be a sports fan,” he said this past week.

For decades, Danue went to at least 31 Red Sox games a year, games he enjoyed with his dad.

He’s also a longtime New England Patriots season ticket holder.

Danue remembers the bad old days when he couldn’t give tickets away.

He’s reduced the number of Red Sox games he attends to six or eight a year, but one game he always goes to and wouldn’t miss is the Patriots Day game in April, which starts at 11:05 a.m.

For him, it’s doubleheader of sorts because he gets to see part of the Boston Marathon, specifically the wheelchair participants. Sometime after 10 a.m. the first of them are let loose on the 26.2 mile course and they make their way through Kenmore Square, which lies just north the Green Monster at Fenway Park.

“I love going to that game and seeing the wheelchairs come through,” he said. “It’s a nice day in the city, but now there’s no marathon and there’s no game.”

When Danue is not at a Red Sox or Patriots game he’s glued to the TV watching.

“I’m a big TV person,” he said. “I love to watch my Patriots and I love to watch my Red Sox.”

How he’ll fill that time now is “uncharted territory,” he said.

TV is replaying various sporting events but the games really only live in the moment they are played.

The hole left by the cancellation of sports affects everybody, Danue said, noting that some high school athletes in their senior year are going to miss some big games, big moments — maybe championship moments — never to be reclaimed.

“You’ve got to feel for kids playing in their senior year of school,” he said.

They only get one shot.

“It’s a one-and-done thing for them,” Danue said.

Danue is the foreman for Attleboro’s recreation department and he’s champing at the bit to get to work on the baseball and soccer fields. But he, like other city workers, are off the job because of coronavirus.

That layoff ends Monday for recreation workers, but there will be restrictions as they make their way from field to field.

Recreation Director Dennis Walsh said Danue and his crew will travel in separate trucks and keep at least 6 feet away from each other.

But it looks like they’ll have enough time to get the fields ready.

All youth sports leagues are on hold until at least April 15 and that could well be extended.

Walsh’s professional life is sports, sports, sports.

Now there are none, none being played that is.

He oversees the city’s recreation programs and the facilities at which sports are played.

He coordinates field and gym schedules for the city’s numerous youth and adult sports leagues and their hundreds of players.

His crews maintain the fields and floors on which the games are played.

Last Wednesday, he was at his desk in Bartek Recreation Center.

The door was locked. The gym was dark. The whole building was dark except for his office.

And it was quiet, very quiet.

He was the only one working.

When interrupted by a reporter, one of the things he was doing was researching companies qualified to clean playground equipment when the coronavirus pandemic ends.

The soft clack of his computer keys seemed to echo throughout the cavernous building.

And part of his day was spent helping Council on Aging Director Madeleine McNielly distribute food to homebound elders.

“She was having trouble finding enough people to deliver the meals so I did that for a couple of hours,” Walsh said.

An empty recreation center is eerie.

Usually Bartek is alive with the thump of bouncing balls and the shouts of kids as they play basketball, volleyball or soccer and otherwise socialize.

There was none of that going on.

Walsh said he toured some of his fields earlier in the week and kids, free from school for at least three weeks, were using them for Frisbee, football and soccer.

But on Thursday signs were posted to prohibit that too — “out of an abundance of caution.”

“Tomorrow we’ll be closing the facilities altogether,” he said, referring to this past Thursday.

That’s a bit worrisome for Walsh, whose Teen Center program provides a supervised place for kids to go after school, kids who may not have parents at home during the day.

It’s a wholesome place to play and study.

And now they’re on the loose all day, unless Mom and Dad have been laid off or were told to stay home from work.

Judging by the MBTA parking lot off Riverfront Drive, many parents are staying home.

At midday Wednesday there were only a couple dozen cars parked in a lot that holds hundreds.

There were none in a private pay lot on Union Street.

Both are typically jammed.

All was quiet.

Quiet is not something Ken Parent, president of South Attleboro Girls Recreation Association, likes.

Members play softball and field hockey. During spring, it’s softball.

Clinics started in January to prepare for the upcoming season in which girls ages 5-14 get out on the diamond and compete.

But those, held at Willett School, were forced to shut down.

In fact everything has ground to a halt for the approximately 100 athletes hoping to play ball, Parent said.

And the girls are disappointed.

“They’re bummed,” he said, noting that they work all year to be able to play in the spring.

“A lot of girls play year-round starting in the fall,” Parent said. “I’m hoping we can still get a season in. It’s hitting everyone pretty hard.”

Parent’s wife, Elsie Parent, helps him with his league duties, and there’s a ton of work.

“My wife and I spend a lot of time on softball-related stuff,” he said. “We spend a lot of time building toward the season.”

Now, however, they have “a lot of extra time.”

But they fill it as best they can.

Parent’s daughter is a player so they work out, even though they don’t have a gym or a field they can use.

There’s still the backyard and the street.

“We practice as a family and try to keep things as normal as possible,” he said.

Other moms and dads are doing the same, he said.

“Our goal is still to have a recreation season (for the younger girls) and a summer season (for the older girls),” he said. “If we have to condense the season we will. These girls have put in the work and they deserve to play.”

Dan Smith, president of the Attleboro Youth Soccer, echoed his softball counterpart.

He supervises a travel league of 22 teams and an in-town league of 50 teams.

All told, about 800 kids play the game, and 800 kids can make a lot of noise.

But they can’t now.

“This is uncharted territory for us,” he said. “At the moment we’re trying to figure out how to proceed.”

The 8-10 week season was supposed to begin on April 4 but that’s on hold until at least April 15 on the orders of Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, he said.

“I’m frustrated that we’re stuck inside and can’t do anything,” Smith said. “And I’m a little sad that I can’t interact with all the people I usually interact with. But it’s understandable. We want to make sure we have to do what we have to do to stay safe.”

Smith said he’s hoping for the best.

“We want to get in as much soccer as possible in a fun and safe environment, this year more than ever,” he said.

Until then, filling the time that he usually spends on the soccer field is not easy, although he noted that he’s cleaned his house more than usual.

“It’s a strange situation for most of us,” Smith said. “I’d rather be on the soccer field.”

But for now, all is quiet in this very strange and silent spring.

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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