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Best, worst fanless sports viewing experiences during COVID-19

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Best, worst fanless sports viewing experiences during COVID-19

The fans return, in limited numbers, on Tuesday. Good for you if you are one of the 4,000 or so who will be allowed inside Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center that night. Good for the Knicks and Nets, both of whom have had seasons in which they have deserved to bask in spectator adulation (and, sure, absorb the occasional reservoir of boos).

Since June, when sports began to trickle back to us, it has been a strange sensory study: How much do mostly (and, around here, entirely) empty stadiums subtract from the overall viewing experience? In some ways, the difference has felt minimal; in others it is a gaping, dreadful hole. We’ve been through it all. We’ve watched it all. Which has been best? Which has been worst?

Here’s one man’s ranking of all of that. I am most curious what other men’s (and women’s) perspectives have been.

  1. NFL: For years the joke has been that one day, NFL games will be played in made-to-order TV studios since football, especially pro football, is such a more complete experience on TV than it is in person. Maybe the fact we got 32 perfectly dreadful local football games to watch this past year, but I never once found myself distracted by the empty seats, and the games all looked as they probably would have in normal times.
  2. NHL: This is no surprise, but the level of play seemed absolutely unchanged, both in last summer’s bubble and this year’s uniquely configured four-division system. That’s because 99.9 percent of all hockey players will play with equal intensity if it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals or a pickup game at an outdoor rink in Moose Jaw with a keg of beer as the stakes.
  3. PGA: I have to admit, I didn’t miss the “You da man!” guy even in the old days if I had the TV on mute, and I never once found myself distracted by the lack of galleries. Sure, something’s missing on the 72nd hole of a major without a rousing crowd greeting, but it’s been easy to overcome.
  4. NBA: It’s been a little more of an adjustment this year, with teams playing in their own arenas. But in the Florida bubble last summer, the extraordinary level of play — helped by the lack of onerous travel and what seemed to be a wonderful shooting background — carried the day.
  5. MLB: Yes, the cardboard cutouts limited the depressing look to many games. The electronically-added crowds were sometimes silly but sometimes welcome. It was early, so the fake crowd noise wasn’t perfected and seemed especially fake. But as someone who actually covered some games in person, I can attest: The TV experience was at least 90 percent more enjoyable than being at the empty ballparks.
  6. NCAA Football: Honestly, most of the games you wanted to see were played in places where there haven’t exactly been arduous social-distance commitments, so it almost seems unfair to put this in here. Still, like the NFL, the product itself is still fine, even in those stadiums that were echoing.
  7. Tennis: The difference between the Australian Open, where there was a limited amount of spectators, and the U.S. Open — which felt like tennis being played at the bottom of the Grand Canyon — was extraordinary. Good for the folks in Queens for grinding through, but that was the one sports event this year where I was constantly aware that nobody was there. It was hard.
  8. College basketball: That last part? It applies to college hoops, too. So much of the sport’s appeal is the visceral gameday experience. Without that, the games can still be fun to watch — St. John’s renaissance has been a blast the past few weeks — but without pep bands, student sections and a generally raucous environment, it’s been a long, hard road.

Vac’s Whacks

The New York State Baseball Hall of Fame announced this week that it will induct both Jay Horwitz and his longtime friend and colleague, the late Shannon Forde, this November. Which only shows the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame has a perfect understanding of what the definition of “Hall of Famer” is. Bravo.


Stop staring at my coach, Boston College.


Maybe there are better ways to introduce yourself to a new fan base, but Taijuan Walker posting a bottle of GTS 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Seaver Vineyards looks to be the new gold standard from where I sit.


It’s freezing, and it feels like we’re living in a real-life snow globe … but knowing that DJ LeMahieu will soon be spraying line drives into the Tampa sunshine makes it all seem 25 percent more bearable, somehow.

Whack Back at Vac

Larry Wigbels: Remember “Spahn and Sain & pray for rain” or “Tanana and Ryan & two days of cryin’?” With the 2021 Yankees we’ve got “Cole … and then the Black Hole.”

Vac: Note to self: Try to figure out words that rhyme with “Kluber” and “Taillon” in the next few months, just in case.


Sam Tee: For all the talk of New York not being a college sports town, there’s still a certain buzz when St. John’s is winning games.

Vac: The Johnnies are the exception to the rule, and a welcome one. If they ever become top-10 regulars again, you’ll want to be at the Garden for every big game again, just like back in the day.


@scottwilli75: If someone has to wear Naismith Hall of Famer Carl Braun’s No. 4 jersey at least it’s a real player like Derrick Rose. I hope the Knicks will one day retire 4, 8 (Nat Clifton), 9 (Richie Guerin) and 30 (Bernard King). These legendary Hall of Fame players deserve it.

@MikeVacc: As regular readers of this column know, I’m now in Year 15 of trying to get Bernard’s No. 30 sent to the rafters, but this year does beg a question: Does Julius Randle playing with that number, as well as he has, which invites many mentions of King that would not normally happen, almost honor King’s legacy as much as a retired jersey would?


Brian Augello: In your article about championships, you left out Frankie Crosetti, Yankees legend. He wasn’t on the level of Jordan and Yogi, but he won 17 championships — eight as a player, nine as a coach. A remarkable career.

Vac: And that’s one record, for sure, you can mark down in ink. Won’t ever be approached.

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Mets star Pete Alonso opens up on why he quit social media

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Mets star Pete Alonso opens up on why he quit social media

PORT ST. LUCIE — Pete Alonso wasn’t the only big voice in the Mets organization to deactivate his social media accounts over the offseason.

But the first baseman going dark on Twitter and Instagram had nothing to do with the aftermath of a stock market saga, which was the reason owner Steve Cohen ditched Twitter, and everything to do with a new outlook on life away from a screen.

“I think that real life is just absolutely fantastic and for me, I think life is a blessing, it’s something that I feel like a lot of people, sometimes including myself, take for granted,” Alonso said Friday after a workout. “And I want to spend every second soaking in every single day because every single new day is a blessing, and I feel like especially in wake of what happened last year, there’s a lot of things that I feel like were taken for granted.

“In 2019, if you see everybody wearing this mask, you kind of scratch your head and just be like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ But there’s a lot of new social norms that are in place now that we took for granted. I think for me, I just want to be appreciative of every single day. I want to live in real life.”

Alonso had been one of the more active Mets interacting with fans through social media, especially during his Rookie of the Year season in 2019, when he adopted “#LFGM” as the team’s new rallying cry.

Though he will no longer be in touch with fans online, Alonso is very much looking forward to welcoming them back in person at Citi Field this season. After playing at an empty stadium in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Mets are expected to have at least a portion of Citi Field open to fans when the 2021 season begins.

“Playing on TV is absolutely fantastic, but being there in person where one swing of the bat or making a diving play or striking somebody out, you can make that many people in person smile, stand, clap, cheer, yell even just by doing something,” Alonso said, with a big smile breaking out. “Once I heard 40,000 people at Citi Field go absolutely bonkers, that’s an adrenaline rush that I’m addicted to.

“I can’t wait until it’s packed out again like that. If it’s 25 percent, 30 percent, I can’t wait to hear people cheer again in person. For me, it’s addicting, and I love it.”

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Yankees’ first spring training game will be seven innings

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Yankees' first spring training game will be seven innings

TAMPA — Aaron Boone said the Yankees’ first spring training game will be seven innings, as part of Major League Baseball’s spring training protocols.

Beginning Sunday — when the Yankees host the Blue Jays at Steinbrenner Field — games through March 13 may be shortened to five or seven innings if both teams agree.

With fewer players in camp and available to play, teams might have a hard time getting nine innings out of their pitching staffs early on.

Boone said he expects the Yankees’ first three or four Grapefruit League games to be seven innings and is not concerned about getting players enough work throughout the spring.

“We should be able to, [since] we have the luxury of live BPs,’’ said Boone, adding they could add B games if they need to later in the spring.

From March 14 until the regular season, games can be shortened only to seven innings.

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Swing tweaks have Luis Guillorme’s Mets value growing

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Swing tweaks have Luis Guillorme's Mets value growing

PORT ST. LUCIE — Luis Guillorme’s value to the Mets in parts of his first two major league seasons was as an infield glove. Last year, he added another dimension.

In a limited sample size (68 plate appearances), Guillorme had a slash line of .333/.426/.439 with nine RBIs and became a left-handed hitting option at third base, starting three games there.

“I made my swing more repeatable — working with Slate and Chili,” Guillorme said Friday, referring to hitting coach Chili Davis and his assistant, Tom Slater. “It made it more simple. I think having a better approach now, being a guy that was used to playing every day when I was in the minors, coming up and having a different role, I think you need a different mindset going up to the plate.

“Your approach might not be the same when you’re playing every day than when you are coming off the bench. I made those adjustments last year and it helped me a lot.”

Guillorme gives the Mets an option at second base, shortstop and third base. Jonathan Villar, who signed as a free agent, fits a similar profile for the Mets. Jeff McNeil figures to shuffle between second and third.

“There’s plenty of guys that can play different positions and we’re all good at it,” Guillorme said. “It makes it fun for you. You are around guys like that who have a lot of talent, just being around them, it’s really good for us.”


Carlos Carrasco was in camp for the first time after missing the first week for an undisclosed reason. Brandon Drury and Wilfredo Tovar are the remaining invitees to major league camp who haven’t participated in workouts.

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