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Coronavirus Spring: Mesa vs. Coachella

Coronavirus might have been on my mind last weekend, but upon being introduced to people, I behaved as I always do. I shook their hands.

In the interest of full disclosure, I walked into Sloan Park in Mesa on Sunday where the Cubs were entertaining the Diamondbacks. My pal, another Roger, an avid and longtime White Sox devotee, lives in Mesa. He reserves a space for 60 of his friends each season at the Party Deck at the spring home of the Cubs. Enticing that many old folks to drive 30 miles across the Phoenix sprawl to see the Sox play in Glendale isn't an option. He'd find no takers. So he plays host at Sloan.

Even though we intensely had been following the news, taking note that old people are most susceptible to the COVID-19 bug, when any of Rog's friends extended their hand, I shook it.

Was that force of habit or my internal dialogue telling me unwisely that I'm feeling good and in little danger of getting the virus? I'm still trying to figure that out.

Maybe the fact that business appeared pretty much as usual during the weekend contributed to my behavior. The White Sox played in Scottsdale on Saturday against the Giants, drawing 9,700 (capacity 12,000) including my wife and me. The seats were awash in Giant orange, also the predominant color at our hotel. At breakfast Sunday morning, we joined the line waiting for a table. Most of the diners were wearing their team colors. The scene was typical of the spring trainings I've attended in the past. Coronavirus was in the news - and hopefully not the air - but that wasn't apparent during the two days we spent in Arizona.

Aside from banning the media from clubhouses - I assume not an unpopular development as far as the athletes are concerned - what other precautions have been enacted by the baseball gods? None that I can see. The Cubs continue to draw near-capacity crowds in Mesa. The Sox less so, but when the Dodgers, who share Camelback Ranch with the Sox, played in Glendale on Saturday, they drew an overflow crowd of 13,214.

Not bad for meaningless practice games for a sport that is consistently criticized for a host of deficiencies.

Fans aren't staying away from other games as well. The Bulls and Cavaliers, two terrible teams, drew an announced crowd of 17,837 at the United Center on Tuesday night. In a home game last Sunday against also-ran San Antonio, the Cavs came within a thousand fans of filling their 19,000-seat arena.

On Sunday, we stayed for a few innings before driving the four hours west to California's Coachella Valley where we spend the winters. One of our go-to places is the Tack Room located on the Empire Polo Grounds, site of the Coachella Music Festival every April. What a difference 250 miles made!

We wanted to get back because the PNB Paribas Open tennis tournament was slated to begin Monday morning with qualifying rounds free to the public. The big guns like Nadal, Djokovic, and most of the top women players show up later in the week.

This is high season in the desert, and the two-week competition a year ago drew 475,000 spectators.

We sat at the bar at the Tack Room since all the tables inside and out were filled. Around 8 p.m. our friendly bartender announced, "The tennis tournament has been cancelled!"

I needed proof which he immediately supplied, sliding his cell phone across the bar with the news. This is a big deal. What many tennis enthusiasts simply refer to as "Indian Wells," the tournament ranks among the world's most prominent. For weeks the lights at the venue burned hours after dark as crews set up side courts, concession stands, ticket booths and kiosks merchandising all things tennis. The players for the most part had arrived along with thousands of fans.

The local newspaper, The Desert Sun, reported that the tournament brings in approximately $400 million to the valley economy, about the same total as the music festival.

"Coachella is next," bellowed the bartender. "That's where I make my summer vacation. Looks like I'll be staying home."

His prescience was borne out by Tuesday evening when the music festival was "postponed," purportedly until October. If it, in fact, doesn't take place, the local coffers suffer an almost $1 billion shortfall.

Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison owns the Indian Wells Tennis Garden so chances are his lifestyle will be little affected by the cancellation of his tournament. But others aren't quite so fortunate. Workers in the hospitality industry - according to The Desert Sun, tourism in the valley accounts for $7 billion annually - won't be in high demand.

Nancy Dunn lives less than a mile from the venue, and for the past four years she's had boarders via Airbnb during the tennis tournament.

"I get people in for two or three days, and then someone else for the same time," she told me. "I had five groups for the two weeks [this year]. Four have cancelled. The other said they're coming anyway, and they'll go hiking for a couple of days."

Nancy charges $130 a night - she'll make breakfast for an extra $10 - and the music festival, which runs three consecutive weekends, brings in additional income. So she's taking an almost $4,000 hit.

"I'm retired," she says, "and I have a pension, but this is mostly my travel money."

If she wants to hang out with a bartender, we know where to find one.

The inconsistency of all this is overwhelming. In a period of a few hours, we went from a stadium full of baseball fans to the scenarios of the Coachella Valley. Does this mean contagion from the new coronavirus is unlikely in Mesa but a legitimate threat in Indian Wells?

And what's to become of the baseball season? By all accounts this promises to be the year that our White Sox escape their doldrums with a lovely mix of young, refreshing, talented players coupled with a group of accomplished veterans poised to challenge all comers. If business proceeds as usual, the Grate should be rocking for the next six months. People will come.

Whether they shake hands is another story.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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