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Saturday Sports: Big 10 Football Takes The Field During The Pandemic

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Back in the studio, time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: All right, I got a grip now. The Dodgers are a game up on the Rays, but sometimes the story is the game within the game. Meanwhile, Big Ten football takes the field.

NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: So good to be with you in the studio.

SIMON: Well, good to have you join us again. The Dodgers win 6-2 last night. They lead the Rays two games to one. I find these two very thrilling teams. Now, I don't know why the ratings are so low. What are people missing?

GOLDMAN: Fantastic Dodgers starting pitching, Scott, Game 1 by Clayton Kershaw last night and Game 3 by Walker Buehler in between not-so-great LA pitching in a game won by Tampa Bay, Game 2. Tampa Bay's very good - a likable story with its small payroll. The Dodgers are the better team - two wins away from their first title since 1988. But we're not counting out those Rays quite yet.

SIMON: I read a piece yesterday on the Tablet Magazine website, which is not a source known for sports coverage, positing this is the game within the game, that the 2020 World Series could feature the first pitcher-hitter confrontation between two Jewish athletes in World Series history. Sandy Koufax never pitched against a Jewish hitter. Hank Greenberg never batted against a Jewish pitcher. You think Vegas has a betting line on this? I gather it almost happened last night.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Well, if Vegas did have a betting line, it would probably favor Tampa Bay left-handed relief pitcher Ryan Sherriff against Dodgers hitter Joc Pederson because Pederson doesn't hit lefties as well. And yes, their historic matchup almost happened. Sheriff pitched in the seventh inning last night and Scott, if I may, a quick detour to tell his pretty compelling story.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: His grandparents survived Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. He had a tough life as a kid with a dad who abused drugs and alcohol. His 10-year career in pro ball, mostly in the minors, did not make him rich. So he lived with his mom during most off seasons to save money. He had Tommy John elbow surgery a couple of years ago and almost considered quitting the game. But he stuck with it, got picked up by the Rays, surprisingly was named to this World Series roster because Tampa Bay needed left-handed pitchers and last night made his World Series debut at the age of 30. So he pitched that seventh inning, held the Dodgers hitless. And when he got the last LA batter out, Joc Pederson was on deck.

SIMON: Ah.

GOLDMAN: But the next inning, they both were substituted out. So we just missed Jewish baseball history.

SIMON: And Big Ten began last night. Wisconsin's Graham Mertz, a red-shirted freshman, quarterback, threw five touchdown passes to defeat a team I have rechristened the Heighten Align I (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...45-7, but no fans and lots of questions about how and why college football gets through the season.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, lots of questions, especially with the Big Ten starting up. Remember, in August, the Big Ten was the first of the major conferences, the power of five, to postpone football because of the pandemic, then a month later reversed course after intense pressure from players, parents, even President Trump. Although conference officials said the decision was because coronavirus cases were down at the time and there was now availability of better testing. So now the Big Ten begins playing in a pandemic that is surging in many parts of the Midwest, you know, where most of the Big Ten schools are located.

SIMON: And mayors of some college towns have expressed their concerns too, right? Because college football draws fans to bars and parties.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, that's exactly right. A dozen mayors from Big Ten college towns signed a letter this week to Big Ten officials, quote, "humbly, asking for practical measures to help fight the spread of COVID, including scheduling games as early as possible," because later games generate those watch parties and gatherings you mentioned. Today's Big Ten schedule does include a few early games, but if you are at night, prime time for TV.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.