2020: The year without sports

Where the Lightning, Rays, Bucs and Rowdies stand on getting back in the game

This sports year has been memorable for a few things that have taken place, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signing Tom Brady. That truly was a landmark moment and not only for the franchise, but all of sports. After all, the quarterback has a record of six Super Bowl rings.

This sports year will also be memorable for what has not taken place. Want a hint? Well, when was the last time you took in a game? Any game?

When the final out was recorded during the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Port Charlotte on March 12, little could anyone have known that would be the last game played by a Tampa Bay professional sports team for nearly four months. The pandemic wiped sports calendars clear and did not leave any clue as to when our beloved games would resume.

Those calendars remained empty through spring, and the early stages of summer, before the Tampa Bay Rowdies resumed their season at Al Lang Stadium in front of 140 invitation-only fans on the evening of July 11, one day shy of four months since the Rays’ Grapefruit League game against the Phillies.

The Rowdies, who played one game in March before resuming their season with a 2-1 win over Atlanta, look to build on their 2-0-1 mark at Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday night, before returning to Al Lang Stadium next Friday night (7:30) to play Charleston Battery. The United Soccer League regular season runs through October 4.

While the Rowdies were back in action on the St. Pete waterfront, the Rays had a three-week summer camp, at Tropicana Field, leading up to Friday night’s (6:40) opener at the Trop against Toronto. Though the Rowdies had some fans in attendance, the Major League Baseball season will open without any.

However, Rays fans can still attend. Sort of.

The team is offering fan cutouts made of lightweight plastic board. The cutouts are $40 for season ticket holders and $60 for all other fans.

“This is a way for our fans to feel like they are part of the action at Tropicana Field and at the end of the season they will get to take home a game-used souvenir,” said Eric Weisburg, the team’s vice president of marketing and creative services, in a statement regarding the offering.

Charlie Morton will be the Rays’ opening night pitcher. It will be the first time the 36-year-old righthander takes the mound for an opener in his career. He was expected to be the starter against the visiting Pirates, for the originally scheduled March 26 opener.

“It does mean a lot and it is one of those things where you like to experience it at least one time,” said Morton during a video conference call Sunday. “It would have been pretty sweet (to pitch opening day in front of a crowd), but to get the ball on opening day is a real honor.”

The Rays’ first five games are at home. Following a three-game opening weekend series against the Blue Jays, they play Atlanta on Monday and Tuesday.

The 60-game regular season, which concludes September 27 at home against the Phillies, leaves little margin for error as the Rays hope to make the playoffs for the second straight year and sixth time in their 23-season history.

As manager Kevin Cash’s team has been preparing for an abbreviated baseball season, the Lightning was getting ready to resume their 2019-20 season. They last played at Toronto on March 10, before the National Hockey League shut down its operations less than 48 hours later. In late May, the league declared the regular season complete and that 24 teams (out of 31) would move on with an opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup.

The Lightning will travel to Toronto for a July 29 exhibition against the Florida Panthers, followed by the start of a round-robin against Washington on August 3 that will determine first-round seeding. As part of its return-to-play plan, the league determined Toronto and Edmonton would serve as hub cities – without fans attending. The latter will host the conference finals, and Stanley Cup final, which is scheduled to wrap up no later than October 4.

“This challenge is completely different and uncharted,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper, following their first practice on July 14. “There is a laundry list of challenges. We are going to be playing games without fans, we are going to a restricted area where we will not have a lot of outside contact with other people and there will be daily testing. Those are challenges we never had to face before.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, the local sporting spotlight was directed toward the Buccaneers following their signing of Brady to a two-year, $50-million deal. In late April, the Bucs were again front and center by trading for Rob Gronkowski, bringing Brady’s former Patriots tight end out of a one-year retirement. Not only were season, and single-game, ticket sales surging – as well as team merchandise, led by Brady jerseys – featuring the team’s new color scheme, hotter than it’s ever been, but the National Football League smiled upon One Buc Place by giving the coach, Bruce Arians’, five prime-time games this season.

It is not known when the Bucs will make their first appearance. As of Thursday, all signs were pointing to there being no preseason games.

The Buccaneers are scheduled to open the regular season at New Orleans on September 13, with their home opener the following week against the Carolina Panthers. While fans are not permitted to attend training camp, it was unknown whether, or how many, will be permitted to attend games.

Because of that, many fans half-jokingly noted on social media how it would be just the Bucs’ luck that there would be so much excitement surrounding the team only to have an empty Raymond James Stadium as Brady led the team onto the field.

Alas, misery has had more than enough company the past several months. When Jeff Scott’s first season as coach at USF coach kicks off remains a mystery.

The Bulls are scheduled to open, at Texas, on Labor Day weekend which for now, is still on. That is not the case with the scheduled September 12 home opener against Bethune-Cookman. The Wildcats are a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), which suspended its fall sports season. Whether USF finds another opponent, or is playing any games come September, will have to be determined very soon.

Earlier this month, two major college football conferences – the Pac-12 and the Big Ten – did away with the non-conference portion of their schedules, delaying the start of the season until late September or early October. Others may follow suit.

The Sunshine State Conference, which includes the University of Tampa and Eckerd College, announced July 18 that it will not have a fall sports season.

For now, the hope is that the MLB, the NHL and the USL seasons will hum along without disruption and that the Rays, Lightning and Rowdies will give sports-starved fans something to cheer about. Also, the region’s football fans still have much to look forward to, even if things play out much differently than originally scheduled.

 

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