Mid-Mississippi, this time of the year, looks a lot like April at Augusta National.

So I took a long walk through my neighborhood yesterday, as I do every day in these uncertain and precarious times. These daily strolls, with a pace just fast enough to raise my heart rate, have become a daily highlight: fresh air, time to think and meditate, waves and smiles from neighbors, and an hour or so away from the mostly distressing news caused by this deadly virus.

Yesterday, I noticed my neighborhood – Fondren-Woodland Hills in the heart of Jackson – has taken on an remarkably pleasing likeness to Augusta National and The Masters in April. The azaleas, dogwoods, and wisteria are in full bloom. Flowers bloom nearly everywhere you look. The grass has turned a deep, verdant green.

And my thoughts naturally turned to Augusta in April. It has been my good fortune to report on several Masters through the years. And I must tell you that the lasting memories are not so much of the legends who have won, but of the sheer beauty of the place, the hilly terrain, the echoing roars of the galleries, and the palpable tension nearly every Masters brings.

Rick Cleveland

Turns out, my thoughts of April in Augusta were just an entry into a much deeper stream of thought of why this time of the year – springtime, when March turns to April – is my favorite when it comes to sports. My guess is that most Mississippians prefer autumn when the air cools and football and then hunting rev up. Not me. No, this is my favorite time of the year for so many reasons.

Let me count them:

• March Madness. Nothing showcases the thrill of victory and agony of defeat – the sheer essence of sports competition – like the NCAA basketball tournaments. Notice, tournaments is plural here. In recent seasons, the women’s tournament has joined the men’s on my list of favorite events to watch and cover. When itty bitty Morgan William hit the shot that slayed UConn in the 2017 Final Four it ranked right in there with when the 1996 Mississippi State men’s team improbably knocked off UConn and Cincinnati in succession to reach the Final Four.

We should be headed into the Sweet 16s this weekend. I didn’t realize how much I would miss it until it’s not here. And that’s not nearly all.

• College baseball. Don’t know why, but as I age, this has become my favorite sport to watch. Perhaps that’s because college baseball players have become the last vestige of what college athletes were supposed to be originally, that is, athletes who play for the love of the game. Most must pay at least part of their tuition. They aren’t “bought.”

And maybe it’s also because in Mississippi we do college baseball so well – at all levels. And we attend it so well. When the 2020 season ended so abruptly, Ole Miss was on a 16-game winning streak, 16-1, and ranked No. 1 in the nation in at least one poll. Mississippi State was 12-4 and had won five straight games. Southern Miss was 12-4, despite replacing much of its 2019 lineup. All three should be headed into big conference series this weekend. Ole Miss and Southern Miss were supposed to square off at Trustmark Park next Tuesday. The season held so much promise. Do you miss it as much as I?

• Major League Baseball. I still adore it, in spite of its flaws, which include now the Astros cheating scandal of 2017. I must admit I loved it more before interminable replay reviews and before home runs took over the game – back when sacrifice bunts, hitting behind the runner, base stealing were much more factors. These days, I take what I can get, which, right now, is none.

And that’s the deal: Now, in this prime time of the sports calendar – and just when we need it most – we aren’t getting it, any of it. It is a cruel Catch 22. Most of us, if we are doing what we should be doing, are isolated at home. We need diversions from the increasingly dreadful news of the day. We need the kind of diversion sports provide as really nothing else does. But because of COVID-19, there are no sports.

My guess is that many of you feel the same. I did not know how much I would miss it until it isn’t here. And so I find myself reading more, walking more, daydreaming more and aching more for the games we are missing.

The games, of course, will return, hopefully sooner rather than later. And that promise – along with the daily walks – will keep me going for now.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.