With Opening Day’s Arrival, Baseball’s New Reality Sets In

Image credit: (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO—There are moments when everything seems normal. Madison Bumgarner slinging strikes that clip the edge of the plate at the last second. Chris Paddack throwing changeups that bring hitters to their knees. Fernando Tatis Jr. driving a pitch to the wall and racing around the bases for a standup double.

And then you look up, and reality hits. The full-throated cheers of 50,000 fans rising in unison are absent. The omnipresent smells of popcorn and hot dogs and beer are no longer wafting through the concourse. The throngs of people, color-coordinated and smiling and dancing in the aisles, brought together by their common love of the game, are gone.

Opening Day for most of Major League Baseball finally arrived Friday. It is the latest start to a season in baseball history, for the shortest season since 1878, with fans not allowed in the stands.

As with the rest of the world, baseball has been irrevocably altered by the novel coronavirus pandemic. And as with everyone else, the game and its players are adjusting to their new reality.

“It was different. It was certainly different,” Padres’ first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “The fans are what make this game.

“It’s definitely a different type of atmosphere. We all realize what’s at stake here. We all realize what’s at hand.”

For so many, the new reality has brought a cascade of realizations. You don’t realize how much you’ve become accustomed to the roar of the crowd until it isn’t there. You don’t realize how much you miss the sound of tens of thousands of strangers erupting together in unbridled joy, an explosion of raw emotion almost without parallel outside of the sports world.

The starting lineups are announced, and the only cheers are the claps of teammates from the dugout. A slick 3-6-3 double play is turned, the scoreboard lights up and the speakers blast familiar jock jams that have been playing since the 1980s, but the only authentic sounds are the hoots and hollers of teammates. The inning-ending 6-4-3 double play is only moderately louder—solely because the music is.

The piped-in crowd noise tries to replicate the ebbs and flows of a ballpark crowd. It doesn’t. It can’t. There is no substitute for the real thing.

Of course, the real thing is not possible right now. Not with four million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 150,000 deaths nationwide. Not with positive test rates growing in nearly two dozen states.

The players acknowledge the reality of the situation. No one likes it. But as professionals, they work through it until the day normalcy can return, both inside the park and out of it.

“It was different,” Paddack said. “Waking up this morning I told myself I was really going to have to use my imagination.”

And so baseball soldiers on, as it has through two World Wars, a Great Depression and countless other recessions, tragedy, civil unrest and yes, even another pandemic.

Amidst it all, the game remains, and so does the passion for it. Three months of waiting and ugly negotiations and heated debates over the role of sports in society did nothing to deter the largest television audience ever for an Opening Night game. It has done nothing to deter fans from finding a way to watch in person, any way they can.

In San Diego, that meant crowding onto the balconies of the downtown apartment and office buildings overlooking Petco Park. That meant the occasional pedestrian stealing a glance through the stadium gates beyond center field. That meant team business employees filling the empty seats in the second deck, cheering loudly as they shed their business demeanor and let their inner fans emerge.

Those who made the effort had plenty to cheer about. Paddack tossed six shutout innings, escaping jams in the first and second with inning-ending double plays and working around a leadoff double in the third. Hosmer drilled a bases-clearing double off Bumgarner to break open a scoreless game in the sixth, and then added a second bases-clearing double off Kevin Ginkel one inning later to pace a 7-2 Padres win over the D-backs.

For the Padres, whose long-predicted rise to contention has yet to manifest, it was a welcome development for the second-largest free-agent signing in franchise history to provide the offense. Hosmer had a .259 batting average and .728 OPS two years into his eight-year, $144 million contract, disappointing both fans and front office officials alike who expected him to guide the young swell of prospect talent arriving on San Diego’s shores.

“I can’t tell you how hard this guy has been working,” said Padres’ manager Jayce Tingler, who earned his first career managerial win. “He’s a hungry guy right now.”

The Padres are among the biggest beneficiaries of MLB’s decision to expand the postseason to 16 teams. A young team in the same division as behemoth Los Angeles and in a league with nearly annual 90-plus win wild card winners, finding a spot in the postseason picture was going to be difficult. Now, all they have to do is win half of their games, and they’ll likely be in.

Whether the fans of San Diego will be able to witness a return to the postseason, which would be the franchise’s first since 2006, remains to be seen. The same is true for every other major league city.

For now, the players will play on. In due time, hopefully, the sounds of the crowd will return, and baseball will once again be whole.

“We’re just extremely thankful to be out there,” Hosmer said. “The guys did a lot of hard work over the course of however long we were off to be ready for this day, not knowing when it would happen … You know everyone is watching at home supporting. You can’t hear the people in the stadium, but you definitely feel the love coming from all angles.”

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