Even this year, titles shouldn’t be diminished

by Gary Shelton on September 25, 2020

in general

Cooper has his team two wins from title./JEFFREY S. KING

Friday, 4 a.m.

As sports seasons go, this one has been a trip to the circus.

Phantom base-runners in extra-innings? Fake crowd noise? Cardboard cutouts for fans in the stands? Injured players, perhaps because of the rush to the field? Seven-inning games? The list goes on.

Everyone -- fans, players, coaches -- will tell you that this has been a weird collection of seasons.

But is it legitimate?

Of course it is.

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I say that not because a local team -- the Tampa Bay Lightning -- is ahead in the Stanley Cup Finals -- or because another one -- the Tampa Bay Rays -- is currently the No. 1 seed in the American League. I say it not because of the possibilities of the Bucs to make their first trip to the playoffs since dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Still, we know better. We live in a world that has had constant alterations to the sports calendar. Season after season has been shortened, and it has cost some teams more than others.

But a season is a season, and if trophies are to be celebrated, why shouldn't this one count? This time, the shorter seasons are not because of greed, or someone drawing a line in the sand, or because of war, or because of politics. Every team went through the season the best it could. And the last one standing shouldn't have to worry about an asterisk.

That's a strange note, anyway. Why put an asterisk on a record. Roger Maris didn't expand the baseball season way back when, after all. The record simply said "most home runs in a season," and in 1961, Maris held it. An asterisk is kind of an arrogant judgment anyway, isn't it?

Ah, but that's beside the point.

In 1918, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, and no one had a problem with it. So what if the season was cut to 126 games or so. All you heard about that season was how long it took the Red Sox to their next title. No one questioned 1918, Babe Ruth hit .300 and won 13 games on the mound, and no one questioned that, either.

If anyone had a problem with the 1972 season, the first season to lose games to the strike, it should have been the Red Sox. They finished second in the American League East -- because the Tigers played one more game and won it by a half-game. (Baseball, for some reason, was happy with some teams playing more than others). But the Oakland A's won it, and yes, they celebrated.

In 1981, it was the Cincinnati Reds who were hosed by the sport. Under the old rules, the Reds would have easily qualified for the post-season with a 66-42 record. But baseball decided to have two split seasons -- and the Reds finished second in both, missing the playoffs. But no one remembers that. They remember the Dodgers beating the Yankees in the World Series.

In 1982, NFL teams played just nine games. But no one brings that up anymore. They remember Washington beating Miami in the Super Bowl. Why? Because we get lost in the moment. Football came back, and fans forgave.

In 1987, it was the silliness of the Scab Season, where each team played three fake games that counted in the standings. But the Redskins' Doug Williams made us forget all of that with his mastery in a win over Denver.

The two seasons that were an affront to the fans were the 1994 baseball season -- which didn't have a World Series -- and the 2004-2005 NHL season -- in which the entire schedule was wiped out. There wasn't a championship at all, and some fans have never forgotten. Baseball's strike in 1994 even carried into the following season, cutting it to 144 games. But at least that year, there was a title.

In 1994-95, the NHL season was trimmed to 48 games. But New Jersey won the Finals, and fans cheered. In 2012-13, it happened again, with Chicago winning it. Again, there seems to be no tainted memories that are attached if a sport comes back and allows fans to act as if it never happened.

It happens. In 1998-99, the NBA season was shortened to 50 games. In 2011-12, it was cut to 66. Still, there were moments, and there were cheers, and there were trophies. Any lingering bitterness faded.

Five Olympics have been called off due to war; others have been boycotted.

So here we are, in 2020, a new world. And you have to remember this. Baseball and hockey shortened their seasons because they had to. They went to the funky extra-inning baserunner rule because it had to. They emptied the stadiums because they had to.

Meanwhile, the teams persevered. It wasn't quite the same thing, and everyone was aware of it. But it was as close as sports could get.

Look, a championship is a successful journey, filled with keeper moments and tragic ones, with comeback wins and winning the war of injury attrition. Should they win it, the Lightning will remember the difficulty in pulling it off. The Rays, too.

Even in other shortened seasons, fans can forgive anything that ends in a title. That's true this year, too.

Yes, it was a difficult season. And even in such times, winning is a noble thing.

Even this year, winning as the best that a team could do.

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