Odd became normal: sports’ masked road trip to the unknown

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FILE - Cardboard cutouts rest in seats at Oracle Park as the San Francisco Giants play the San Diego Padres during the first inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, in this Wednesday, July 29, 2020, file photo. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

Take your pick.

Maybe it was a Big East Tournament basketball game that broke for halftime and never returned. Or the cardboard cutouts of spectators that replaced flesh-and blood fans in stadiums across the country. Or the Maui Invitational relocated from the pounding Hawaiian surf to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Or the racehorse named for Dr. Anthony Fauci (a second-place finisher at Belmont Park to a horse called Prisoner.)

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What wasn’t odd in 2020, when the coronavirus was the commissioner of all sports? The whole year was a long Alice in Wonderland tumble down a rabbit hole. And, before long, the odd became the new normal. Masked coaches patrolled the sidelines looking as if they had been lifted from the set of a cheesy cops-and-robbers movie. But, after a while, they became, well, just coaches.

Still, to capture the full freakishness of the sports year it may have helped to be working in a car rental agency in St. Louis or riding north on I-55 one day in mid-August.

The Cardinals, rocked by the virus and having not played in more than two weeks, were set to return in Chicago. To get there, and minimize safety risks, the team rented 41 cars for everyone in the traveling party. The players and staff grabbed whatever cars they could at the lot and headed out -- a caravan, not of camels, but fully loaded sedans and SUVs. Manager Mike Shildt brought up the rear in a GMC Yukon.

“I mean at this point, you almost laugh at everything that you have to do,” pitcher Adam Wainwright said. “It’s just a sign of the times. We’re in a weird phase right now.”

It was a phase of the moon in which the only sensible response was to howl. The wailing came from all corners.

VEXED, PERPLEXED: Garth Brooks, a big Detroit Lions fan, posted a photo of himself wearing a jersey of famed running back Barry Sanders. The back of the jersey said “Sanders” and “20.” Some of the country star’s fans took that as a 2020 presidential endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I’ve listened to your songs for the last time,” wrote one person. ...

Shortly after the year began, Dan Snyder, owner of Washington’s NFL team, was introducing coach Ron Rivera at a news conference. Snyder, seemingly caught in a time warp, addressed the assemblage in the room with these words: “Happy Thanksgiving.” ...

Shortly after he arrived in Tampa, Tom Brady was greeted not with a parade but an order to get off the lawn. The quarterback considered by many the greatest of all time headed outside to work out during the pandemic and was told to knock it off. He later received an apologetic letter from Mayor Jane Castor: “I couldn’t help but have someone investigate the sighting of a G.O.A.T. running wild in one of our city parks.”

ICE AGE: David Ayres is a 42-year-old Zamboni driver and kidney transplant recipient. He’s also the on-call emergency goaltender in Toronto at Maple Leafs games. He suspected he might need to suit up when Carolina Hurricanes goalie James Reimer was injured. Then Reimer’s backup was hurt. Enter, Ayres. He gave up two goals on his first two shots but stopped the next eight. Carolina won 6-3 and a jubilant locker room awaited him. He was soon making the rounds on talk shows, the internet abuzz, merchandise hawked in his name. Raleigh proclaimed a day in his honor. Said Ayres: “I didn’t expect all of this ... that’s for sure.”

ANIMAL MAGNETISM: Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Madison Bumgarner told The Athletic he has been roping and competing in rodeo events under the alias Mason Saunders -- a shortening of his first name, his wife’s maiden name. Bumgarner, the 2014 World Series MVP, says roping for him is “just part of who you are.” ...

Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury blamed a positive doping test on eating uncastrated wild boar meat. Boars were also said to be problematic for Yoenis Cespedes. The New York Mets slugger, the New York Post reported, broke his ankle chasing a wild boar on his ranch.

... Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is 6-foot-3, but he better not take his namesake to the hoop. A newborn giraffe at the Memphis Zoo, one that can grow to 14 to 18 feet, was named Ja Raffe.

IRE CALLING: Anger, greed and indignation never went out of style. Spike Lee, the Oscar-winning film director and courtside Knicks fan, was furious that Madison Square Garden management refused to do the right thing, allowing him to ride his usual elevator at his usual entrance. ...

With baseball trying to negotiate a comeback and unemployment battering the country, star Tampa Bay pitcher Blake Snell took a less than diplomatic approach: “I’m not splitting no revenue,” he said. “I want all mine.” ...

Top-tier soccer returned to a grateful Britain after nine months, but time and hardship did not mellow Arsenal fans, who again chanted, “Stand up if you hate Tottenham.”

CRACKS OF LIGHT: There was reason for hope and possibility this year, apart from video showing Golden State's Steph Curry making 105(!) 3-pointers in a row after practice. ...

There was professional cyclist Davide Martinelli, far from throngs along the Champs-Élysées in Paris. He got on his bike and delivered medicine to the elderly and others during the pandemic. His Italian village of Lodetto has no pharmacy. He gets orders from the locals and picks up supplies in the next town. “I’ve got a bike and two legs in pretty good form,” he said. “So riding 10 kilometers (6 miles) a day is no big deal. I wanted to help the people who always support me during the season.” ...

Catching a foul ball is one of baseball’s everlasting charms. But with no fans in the park -- in Oakland and San Francisco -- and plenty of balls landing in the seats, AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley had an idea. Gather the balls and give them away. That she did, to friends and strangers, UPS drivers and firefighters, cooks and grocery managers. One went to a nearly blind man in Germany for his 85th birthday. “Spreading some joy,” said McCauley, the Patron Saint of the Foul Ball.


Contributing to this report were AP sports writers Jay Cohen, Andrew Dampf, Fred Goodall, Rob Harris, Brian Mahoney and Stephen Whyno; Associated Press writer Bobby Caina Calvan and photographer Luca Bruno; and The Canadian Press.

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