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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

 Very gradual return of live sports amid COVID-19 pandemic  is weird . . . but we'll take it

Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller celebrates scoring his side's

Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller celebrates scoring his side's second goal the German Bundesliga soccer match against Eintracht Frankfurt in Munich on May 23, 2020.  Credit: AP/Andreas Gebert

Let’s be grown-ups here: Leagues and players primarily want to restart spectator sports to protect their business interests, not to boost our spirits.

But that’s OK, because the boosting of our spirits will be an inevitable byproduct. We’ll take it.

One thing the COVID-19 sports shutdown has reminded us of is that a significant number of Americans very much enjoy watching fit, skilled, highly paid young people competing in athletic contests.

And we now are closer than we have been to returning to that world since the Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11, with encouraging news coming in waves over the past week or so.

An incomplete review: UFC and NASCAR are back, as are German soccer, Korean baseball and celebrity charity golf outings.

June is scheduled to bring the Belmont Stakes, PGA Tour, boxing, IndyCar, pro bowling, Japanese baseball, and Spanish, English and Italian soccer.

Most tantalizing of all, the complicated, unconventional plans to get the NHL and NBA going sometime in midsummer rapidly are gaining momentum, with the NHL unveiling a specific, 24-team playoff plan that includes the Islanders and Rangers.

Major League Baseball remains in limbo because of an epic squabble over money, but cooler heads might yet prevail in time for a shortened season.

Governors Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Phil Murphy of New Jersey keep saying positive things, most recently green-lighting pro teams to open their practice facilities. MLS’ NYCFC did so on Monday. The Knicks did so on Friday. The NFL is working on it.

Tennis' U.S. Open still is on track for Queens in late summer, and on Friday came word a limited number of fans might even be invited!

Bottom line: It almost is time to unplug the WABAC machine sports journalists have been using to fill time and space with material from another time and space.

The 20th century had its ups and downs in 100 years in the spotlight, but it is overstaying its welcome in 2020. In other words, less Trottier, more Trotz. Less MJ, more LBJ. Less Steve Trout, more Mike Trout. Less SD, more HD.

Before we get too worked up, though, a little perspective: Think about what we are getting excited about here.

Imagine what a time traveler from late February visiting our new world would have said about plans for sports during the pandemic.

NBA teams playing at Disney World, in midsummer? Twenty-four teams in the NHL playoffs? The Mets and Yankees in the same division? No high-fives? No spitting? No hugs?

NO FANS?!?

Our time traveler friend would have considered all that a worst-case, difficult-to-imagine, dystopian nightmare scenario. Now it is viewed as a burst of rosy, best-case optimism.

But here we are. And, of course, the entire thing could come crumbling down if COVID-19’s likely second wave hits hard, forces leagues to reconsider everything and lands us back where we started.

That could happen. It did the last time sports tried this sort of thing, during a second-wave outbreak in Seattle in the spring of 1919 that forced the Stanley Cup Final to be cut short — and killed Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall.

No one wants anything like that to happen, of course. And let us hope we are more sophisticated about proper medical practices and preventive measures now than we were then.

Because this is a moment for optimism in addition to caution. Many of us like watching sports, even if it means fake noise being pumped into stadiums to approximate our presence while we watch on screens from afar.

The whole thing surely seems silly to people who are not fans — and who already considered sports a waste of time even under normal circumstances.

It is not silly to us. Sure, there is a lot of weirdness and uncertainty ahead. But it beats the alternative.

New York Sports