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NM sports 2020: Sadness abounded, and no Isotopes was the saddest thing of all

Isotopes Park sits empty on April 13, what would have been the eve of the 2020 home opener. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

There is, as Tom Hanks/Jimmy Dugan so emphatically told us in the 1992 film “A League of Their Own,” no crying in baseball.

But is there crying in no baseball?

No? If not a tear, then, could not misty eyes, a shake of the head and a lump in the throat be excused in pondering the 2020 Albuquerque Isotopes season that wasn’t?

Yes, or so it says here.

With no room for argument, the brutal toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic ranks as the No. 1 New Mexico sports story of 2020. How could it be otherwise?

Certainly, though, there could be debate as to where, when and how that impact was most severely felt.

The Isotopes’ lost season is my choice. Here’s why:

First, I would not argue against opinions that the COVID-prompted erasure of high school sports – spring and fall – cut more deeply, affected more people and stirred more controversy than the void at Isotopes Park. But, as always, I cede that territory to Journal high school beat writer James Yodice.

I could no more pitch for the Isotopes than reflect on preps 2020 with James’ passion and authority.

And, yes, the UNM football team’s 43-day sojourn in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the Lobo men’s and women’s basketball teams’ current addresses in West Texas are story lines that, pre-COVID, no science-fiction author could have thought to pursue.

There, too, were the travels and triumphs of New Mexico United: 17 games on the road, none at home, culminating in a United Soccer League playoff berth. The New Mexico State football program, betrayed by its status as an independent, lost an entire season. Those are worthy story-of-the-year candidates all.

Here’s the thing, though, about the Isotopes, and minor league baseball in general, being silenced by the coronavirus. When most urgently needed as an escape and diversion from our ever-mounting troubles, the Isotopes, through no fault of their own, were not there.

There’s a purity in minor league baseball, after all, that’s lacking elsewhere in the sports heirarachy.

In following our college and major league pro sports, we tend to lose perspective – not to mention our minds.

When our teams lose, we’re losers, too. Fire the bumbling coach, cut the fumbling running back who made us feel this way. And yes, of course the refs are out to get us. Always.

Minor league baseball? Hey, it’s just for fun. Root, root, root for the home team, sure. But if they lose, it’s hardly a shame. It barely even registers.

Whatever the outcome of a game, the Isotopes, year after year, have offered a night/afternoon out with family and friends. There’s beer or soda to be sipped, hot dogs to be noshed. Umpires are there to be booed, of course, but not to be tarred and feathered.

Here, though, in 2020, was the problem. Without those sippers, noshers and booers, without paying customers in the stands game after game, there could be no games.

Major League Baseball, combat sports, the NBA, the NFL, college football and college basketball, thanks to TV money, found a way to exist amid the pandemic with few or no fans in attendance. Not so for the Isotopes, the Pacific Coast League and all of minor league ball.

“Playing in front of no fans is not an option for us,” Isotopes general manager John Traub said.

As much as the Isotopes were missed as a diversion, the tangible damage done should not be ignored. In their absence, money and jobs were lost.

On June 7, Traub announced the furlough of most of the Isotopes staff. And as if fate and COVID-19 hadn’t been cruel enough, Isotopes executive Nick LoBue, who’d been with the franchise from its inception, died in November of complications from the virus.

Elsewhere, misery and melancholia reigned, with isolated pockets of success and satisfaction.

New Mexico’s small colleges didn’t play football this fall and aren’t playing basketball this winter. As with the Isotopes, there was no TV money to cushion their fall.

As for UNM men’s and women’s basketball, things had already gotten weird, really weird, before the pandemic struck.

The two teams entered 2020 with a combined record of 22-8. The rest of the season, plagued by legal troubles, internal strife and player departures, they went 12-23.

Things now appear to be looking up for coach Mike Bradbury’s Lobo women, though their Mountain West schedule has yet to begin. For coach Paul Weir’s men, the question looms large: Is Boise State that good, having twice beaten UNM by a combined 61 points, or are the Lobos that terrible? We await the answer.

The New Mexico State men’s basketball team went 25-6 in 2019-20 but had the Western Athletic Conference tournament canceled. They’re living, studying and practicing in Phoenix while struggling, amid COVID-19-related cancellations, to get their 2020-21 season in full swing.

The NMSU women are headquartered down I-10 in Tucson.

The New Mexico Bowl was played on Christmas Eve day in Frisco, Texas, matching teams with a combined record of 7-8. Yes, 7-8.

So, now we’ve seen it all, right?

Right?

Regarding UNM football, I fully expected the Lobos’ opening game against San Jose State on Halloween night to be a train wreck within a fire drill within a dumpster fire while in costume as a football game.

This was a UNM team coming off a 2-10 season, after all, with mostly the same personnel as in 2019, handcuffed in its preparation by New Mexico’s restrictive COVID-19 policies while attempting to master new offensive and defensive schemes under first-year head coach Danny Gonzales.

Yet, the Lobos were tied with the Spartans – who would go undefeated and win the Mountain West title – late in the third quarter before succumbing.

The Lobos lost their first five games while mostly being competitive, but Gonzales made it clear he wasn’t interested in moral victories. Finally, the Lobos got two real-live victories on the scoreboard, ending their abbreviated season with wins over Wyoming and Fresno State.

As reflected in the Lobos’ midseason dip – bad losses to Air Force and Utah State – the rebuilding process rarely traces a straight upward line. But under native son Gonzales, with two highly rated recruiting classes and with mentor and former Lobos head coach Rocky Long at his side, there’s legitimate hope for the future.

In my 2019 year-end column, Gonzales’ hiring and New Mexico United’s remarkable first season shared the top spot. Competitively, NMU’s second season was even better – producing the team’s first playoff run.

That United did so without the benefit of a single home match made its accomplishment more impressive still.

Let us hope that, with Pfizer and Moderna joining the team, NMU fans will return in droves in 2021.

Let us hope that applies to the Isotopes as well.

Play ball, dammit. Play ball.

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