Baseball's longest-awaited opening day brings reminders of bliss — and of COVID-19 reality

Hannah Keyser
·7-min read

The plan was to have three opening days in one.

For the first time since the end of the 2019 season, ballparks across the country would host fans in front of the hometown team. During the latter rounds of the 2020 postseason, played in Arlington, Texas, the Rangers’ new ballpark sold a limited set of pod seats despite the spiking coronavirus numbers at the time. Six months later, baseball was poised to usher in a post-pandemic summer.

The players got what they wanted: adherence to the original April 1 start to the season. Owners got what they wanted: seats sold at every stadium, to varying capacity. And because of a robust vaccine rollout and the herculean efforts of scientists and health care workers, it seemed like we might even be able to celebrate these facts without too many caveats. Baseball is back, and so is the experience of watching a game. Fifteen of them were scheduled to be played on April 1, 2021. And I was planning to be at one-fifth of them.

The day did not go according to plan.

A fan holds a sign expressing his joy at being able to attend a major league baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays on opening day at Yankee Stadium, Thursday, April 1, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Baseball fans around the country got to watch their hometown teams in person for the first time since 2019. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Braving the conditions at Yankee Stadium

I told my editor that I wouldn’t write about the weather. But it is 40 degrees and raining in the Bronx at 10:30 a.m. It is not tailgate weather, it is not drink-beers-before-noon weather, it is barely baseball weather except when you consider that a couple of years ago the Yankees’ home opener was snowed out because this is what early April in New York does at the worst possible time.

Despite the wet chill, some significant portion of the 10,850 fans that the Yankees are admitting to start the season have arrived 2 1/2 hours before first pitch to act like it is tailgate weather.

“Honestly, if I didn't have a ticket, I still would have came here to be in the parking lot,” says a fan who calls himself Fast C and won’t give me his real name. He’s 48 and says he hasn’t missed an opening day in over 20 years.

Except, of course, last year.

He would have gone then, too, if they’d let him, and he feels plenty comfortable now with the safety measures. If anything, “it's a little over and beyond,” he says.

“Like all the protocols they have, it was a nightmare.”

At Yankee Stadium, fans and media members must show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. A small army of staff patrols the pavilions just outside the gates to make this feasible and as fast as possible. They wield thermometers, and check documentation, or else issue repetitive reminders.

With an intonation usually saved for hawking hot dogs and beer: “Please have your vaccination cards out with your ID. Or your test results out with your ID. Seventy-two hours or rapid.”

The whole thing runs surprisingly smoothly.

“We had to take a rapid antigen this morning,” says Jason Rivera, who was there with his son. “It was worth it for us, to be here and be part of history.”

He calls it birthright for his family, which has had season tickets since 1997. Last year, at home on Long Island, they took the TV outside to watch a belated opening day played in an empty stadium.

“Missed being here though, that's for sure,” he says.

It’s a sentiment echoed succinctly by a sign that says “JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE” made by Lia Bella and Michael Mayer.

“We're just happy for the opportunity,” Bella says. “We're happy to socially distance, we're happy to get tested or whatever you need to do to give a little bit of semblance of normalcy back to everything. It's been a really tough year for a lot of people.”

I meet a 2-year-old named John Derek, after Jeter, attending his first ever Yankees game, along with 10 family members and their friends. Also New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang is there. And then it’s time to hit the road.

Philadelphia Phillies' Jean Segura, center, celebrates with teammates after hitting a game-winning RBI-single off Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Nate Jones during the 10th inning of an opening day baseball game, Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
The Phillies mobbed Jean Segura, center, after he knocked in the winning run in extra innings. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Reason to be raucous in Philly

It’s 107 miles from Yankee Stadium to Citizens Bank Park in South Philly. I arrive after the afternoon game is already underway. This is my home field. I grew up 15 minutes away and have seen dozens or maybe hundreds of games here. It’s what I picture when I picture myself at a game.

The media entrance lets you out onto the concourse, and it felt like stepping back in time or into a movie.

That sounds like sap and trying to make something new out of a cliche, but it was more visceral than sentimental. Suddenly immersed in a sensory experience that I forgot I still remembered. It smelled like a ballgame, like a day I might have had before the pandemic ever happened.

The boos were the best part. Fake fans on a soundtrack don’t boo, but Philly fans do and I loved every one of them. They boo the umpire who calls Bryce Harper out at third and boo the replay that upholds the call. They boo Alec Bohm when he misplays a ball and roar back in joy when he makes a leaping catch to rob the Braves’ Marcell Ozuna.

Of course they boo Ozuna and Ronald Acuña Jr.

“I like to heckle the outfielders, in a good way,” says Oscar Alvarado. “It felt good to see Ozuna interact with the fans.”

Alvarado is one of the two founders of the Phandemic Krew that rose to fame as some of the only fans in baseball to cheer on their team in person in 2020. After they spent the entire 60-game season last summer pressed up against the outfield gate, the Phillies rewarded their loyalty by letting the Krew into the ballpark ahead of all the other fans, the first of 8,800.

“We had one more air horn can, the last one,” says Alvarado. “So we aired it up, left it outside and came in.”

This time last year, Alvarado was at work, a retail manager at a big-box store, streaming old World Series games while counting the number of customers allowed inside. His co-founder, Brett MacMinn, was watching the 2019 opening day broadcast with his wife and parents. Now, they’re at their first of 82 home games in a dedicated Krew section and people ask for their autographs.

When there are fans in the stands, a two-out ninth-inning Harper at-bat in a tied game just feels different. When he strikes out, it hurts in the air. And when they walk it off an inning later, someone shouts, “162-0, baby!”

‘It’s still here’

By then I was supposed to be on a train to Washington, D.C. to catch the night game where the Nationals would finally get to raise their 2019 championship banner and the Mets would debut their new franchise shortstop — a dynamic matchup for the third of three opening days. There were supposed to be 5,000 fans who hadn’t seen their team since it won a World Series on the road.

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo announced on Wednesday that there had been a positive COVID-19 test among the Washington players. He said they would have to make some roster moves to accommodate the positive player and those deemed close contacts, but they expected to play opening day as intended.

Except that’s the problem with communicable viruses — once you start gathering, for work or to play a game, they can spread. On Thursday morning, there were two more confirmed positive tests and the scheduled primetime opener was postponed. A fourth player was suspected positive as well. Rizzo mandated his whole team isolate while MLB conducts its contact tracing. Until that’s done, they won’t play.

“It’s still here,” Nats manager Dave Martinez said over a Zoom call after the game had been officially banged. Citing an abundance of caution, a press release said that it won’t be made up on Friday either. Beyond that, no one knows when their season will start. Just because the tickets are sold doesn’t mean it’s safe to play.

“We’re still in the midst of a pandemic and people need to still take this seriously,” Martinez said. “They really do.”

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