“It’s dog years, without question,” Scott Van Pelt said. “Dog years.”
And that might be understating things. One month into a world without sports, it sometimes seems as if seven years have passed, not seven dog’s-life months.
“It feels like 1950,” Van Pelt said of mid-March, when sports abruptly evaporated in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I wasn’t born in 1950. But it feels like that’s what it is. So I don’t even know how to articulate it.”
But articulate it he has.
Why check in with SVP to mark this one-month mini-milestone?
Because as much as anyone in sports media, he has come to be a voice for our tangled emotions, expressing a mix of shock, frustration and hope in nightly group therapy sessions for fans on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”
Van Pelt was well-positioned for this role, given that his version of “SportsCenter” is driven more by personality than by highlights, earning him loyal fans even if it might have turned off some meat-and-potatoes viewers.
Now there are no highlights, and Van Pelt has filled the gap as best as possible with news of cancellations and postponements, A-list interviews, vintage clips and well-crafted essays about what we all are experiencing.
It began on March 11, a turning point in the crisis, when Rudy Gobert of the Jazz tested positive for the virus, the NBA abruptly suspended its season and Van Pelt anchored ESPN’s coverage of the unfolding drama.
He said it was a collaborative effort that night and has continued to be even as he mans his lonely post from a studio in Bristol, Connecticut.
“It’s not me out there with a kazoo and a drum; I’m not a one-man band,” he said. “I’ve seen nice things said and heard nice things said, and it’s very flattering and it’s gratifying in this way:
“I feel like all that really reflects is the approach I’ve always tried to employ. I’ve always tried to be reasonable. I’m not a guy who yells at you, tries to say the most outlandish thing. I am a guy who’s going to be sincere and authentic in what I believe, what I think what matters to me.”
Van Pelt added, “I didn’t have to put on some kind of cape when this happened and adopt a new persona. I felt like all I had to do was continue to be who I was and for our show to continue to be who we were.
“I think more than anything what I’ve found, and this has been very, very gratifying, is that in the absence of anything else, people have turned to something that does feel familiar and that we have been that familiar thing.”
There are bigger problems in the world than sports media members with little to cover and fans with little to watch. But we are allowed to lament what has been lost in the past month.
The 10 days without sports after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, felt different for myriad reasons, one of which was that there was an end in sight. Another was that the act of coming together was in itself healing.
This time, coming together is the opposite of healing.
Look at it this way: If Pete Alonso hits a game-winning home run for the Mets in their first game back in an empty spring training stadium in Arizona, will it mean as much as Mike Piazza doing so before 40,000 fans at Shea Stadium in 2001?
This situation continues to be weird beyond belief, and there is no playbook for navigating it.
Van Pelt and his co-workers have tried. One of his most popular initiatives has been “Senior Night,” in which he highlights teams and athletes whose high school or college seasons and careers were cut short.
“As cynical as you want to be and as cynical as these times are, even the most hardened, cynical has to be moved by the thought of a kid who had one more game to win a state title and it was taken away,” he said.
One example he cited was the Northeastern women’s hockey team, which won the Beanpot Tournament and has a senior class that has won 100 games overall.
“Whatever they’re getting out of us doing it, we’re getting it in spades,” Van Pelt said, “because I’m finding out about these stories. It’s a great reminder that the greatest unifier we have is sports — period. It’s been amazing. It’s been such a beautiful thing to be reminded of.”
When sports does return, it will bring with it the bad stuff that always has been a part of it. But this hiatus also will remind us of the good stuff we have missed.
“It’s like anything else; something gets taken away and you go, you know what, whatever sucked about it, there was way more that was good,” Van Pelt said. “I think a lot of people feel that way about sports."
True. But this also is true: If the next few months feel as long as the first month has, this really is going to stink, doggone it.
“If this were a marathon, we might be a few miles in,” Van Pelt said. “We’re not halfway there. We’re still in the very early stages of this marathon, and if you’re already exhausted, you better figure out a way to walk.
“I mean, just do the math. I’m not going to get into what it’s going to take, because no one knows the answer to that, but sure, people need to be entertained every second of their lives. People don’t do well with uncomfortable silences, and we’re dead calm. There’s no wind to blow us anywhere. We’re just sort of sitting here.”