A Sports Tribute To 2020

Author: Sam Gemini

MADISON – Well, as the wildest, weirdest, and by many accounts, the worst year of our lives draws to a close, we can all look towards 2021 with contentment that 2020 is over. While the difficulties faced by the sports world are insignificant compared to the hardships of those directly affected by COVID-19, it is fun to reflect on some of the utterly bizarre happenings in sports leagues around the United States this year. In this article, I ring in the new year by ranking the five most unusual sports occurrences that happened in 2020 America. I hope you find it satisfying and amusing.

5. Miami Marlins Qualify for the MLB Playoffs

The entire MLB season in 2020 was, like everything else, highly irregular. The regular season was only sixty games, a minuscule sample size compared to the usual 162. On top of this, Major League Baseball, a league that prides itself on the huge difficulty and, for some teams, the rarity of making the playoffs, expanded the postseason from the usual ten (with two wild card games) to a full sixteen team bracket. As a result, any team that got off to a hot start and finished the season around .500 had a chance. I give you the Miami Marlins.

On small sample sizes, baseball is a sport of randomness and streaks. The Marlins were undoubtedly one of the worst teams in baseball last season. But every team, no matter how bad, usually put together a run at some point in the year, and with only sixty games being played, one of these runs could take up a quarter of the season. After a COVID-19 outbreak within the organization caused the postponement of eight straight games, Miami won five in a row to start 7-1. Two months, four more postponements, and seven double-headers later, the Marlins finished with a record of 31-29 and clinched a postseason berth as the sixth seed in the NL. They managed to advance even further with a best-of-three sweep of the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field before getting swept in turn by the Atlanta Braves in a best-of-five. The short, random success of manager-of-the-year Don Mattingly and the Marlins has to be one of the most unusual things that happened in 2020.

4. Penn State at Michigan – Huge Game, Right?

This may have been the funniest game of 2020. Penn State vs. Michigan: Two massive football brands square off with Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff implications; the deafening roar of 110,000 at Michigan Stadium will be heard under the bright lights of prime time.

Actually, this was an 11 a.m. game between two dreadful teams, 2-3 Michigan and 0-5 Penn State, in an eerily silent Big House sparsely populated with a handful of cardboard cutouts. The Nittany Lions tallied their first win of the season against the Wolverines with a score of 27-17, furthering the embarrassment of Michigan’s season and adding yet more heat to Jim Harbaugh’s coaching seat. Watching what is usually a headline matchup take place in irrelevancy against the backdrop of rows upon rows upon rows of empty Michigan Stadium bleachers made the world feel upside down.

3. Wednesday Afternoon Football: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers

While I did not rank it as the weirdest occurrence of the year, this Wednesday NFL game is probably the most ‘2020’ game of 2020. When the schedule came out, this classic rivalry was to be played on Thanksgiving night: a premium spot for a premium game. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are two bitter, historic football rivals, and both have very good teams. Unfortunately, a COVID-19 outbreak in the Ravens organization forced this matchup to be postponed not once, not twice, but four times. It was initially moved from Thanksgiving night to Sunday afternoon; as the virus continued to pose problems, it was shifted to Monday night, then to Tuesday night, until finally coming to rest on Dec. 2, a Wednesday afternoon at 2:40 p.m. CT. This was once in a lifetime weirdness: one of the NFL’s cornerstone rivalries; two elite teams; empty Heinz Field; Wednesday afternoon. On top of it all, Ravens superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson, along with many others, was out with COVID-19, requiring Robert Griffin III to play before getting injured and replaced in the second half by Penn State alumnus Trace McSorley.

Sounds like the undefeated Steelers steamrolled Baltimore, right? Wrong! It was a close contest the entire way with Pittsburgh only ahead 12-7 entering the fourth and winning with the appropriately bizarre score of 19-14. The dreadfully sloppy play of both teams throughout made it one of the most entertaining games of the season. I am sure no hardcore sports fan will soon forget the craziness of this game.

2. ‘All Broncos QBs Are Ineligible’

This was the headline published on Saturday, Nov. 28, the day before the Denver Broncos’ home matchup against the New Orleans Saints. Yes, you read that right. Twenty-four hours before this game, all four Denver quarterbacks – Drew Lock (starter, tested positive for COVID-19), Brett Rypien, Blake Bortles, and Jeff Driskel – were ruled ineligible to play. Additions cannot be made to a roster this close to game time, so the Broncos were forced to play a football game without a quarterback.

To save the day, Denver called upon Kendall Hinton, a rookie wide receiver out of Wake Forest. He gave a valiant effort, completing one pass in nine attempts with zero touchdowns, two interceptions, seven rushing yards, a quarterback rating of 0.1 and a passer rating of 0.0. But it was all for naught, as the Broncos tragically lost by a score of 31-3. Okay, my sarcasm is a bit harsh. The poor guy was asked to play the most difficult and demanding position in sports against one of the league’s best defenses. Emotions aside, these were possibly the most improbable set of circumstances that ever surrounded a football game, and we are not likely to ever see it again.

1. Big East Tournament Tips Off

On the fateful day of Thursday, March 12, the Big Ten fired the ‘shot heard ‘round the world’ and canceled the Big Ten basketball tournament. This set off a cascade of cancellations throughout all sports, the most relevant at that time being the other NCAA Conference basketball tournaments: SEC; PAC-12; Big 12; ACC; and other group-of-five and mid-major conferences. Sports went silent; the NCAA Tournament would be canceled any minute; all was still – except the Big East, where the quarterfinals were going full steam ahead.

There has never in history been a sports-watching experience as unusual, almost eerie, as the first half of St. John’s vs. Creighton at 11 a.m. on March 12. All other conference tournaments had been canceled, and it was certain that the Big East would follow suit very soon. And yet here was this game, with the players battling as hard as ever, as if everything was normal and a conference championship could be reached. There was no question that the players would be sent home at half time, and none of the points scored would amount to any significance. But aside from the empty seats, the first half had every appearance of a perfectly normal game – nothing unusual going on in the world; all sports proceeding as planned.

It was the strangest feeling I have ever experienced while watching anything. We will never know the final outcome of the game St. John’s led 38-35 at the half on Thursday, March 12, 2020.