Jeff Seidel | Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — There were no more creepy cardboard cutouts in the stands, and no more fake crowd noise. Thank goodness.
Jim McGuire, an actual real human being, watched the Detroit Tigers in person on Sunday afternoon on a beautiful, sun-splashed, 88-degree afternoon.
“This is bizarre,” McGuire said before the Tigers opened the Grapefruit League season with a 10-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium.
McGuire sat in a white box — 6 feet square — painted on the grass berm beyond the left-field fence. Normally, that berm is filled with fans, packed together, sitting on blankets. But under the new rules, the crowd was limited, and everybody was kept 6 feet apart, trying to remain socially distanced.
“It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” said McGuire, 57, of Lakeland. “But it’s so cool to be here. We are grateful for a chance to go to a spring training game. I understand they have to do what they gotta do.”
It was the first time in nearly a year that a Detroit sports team played a home event —albeit in Florida — in front of paying fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The crowd was around 2,000 people – technically a sellout despite only 20% of the seats being filled.
The Tigers went to extreme lengths and seemed to plan out everything to keep everybody safe. Pods of seats were grouped together, and the unused seats were zip-tied so nobody could use them. Each pod had its own aisle access to avoid unnecessary contact. Everybody was required to wear a mask unless they were eating or drinking. Reporters sat in the press box separated by plastic shields. And all fans were encouraged to stay in their seats.
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“It’s the only way we are going to see baseball this year,” Tigers usher Bill Curry said to fans outside the stadium. He spoke into a microphone and used a miniature speaker to amplify his voice, explaining the rules to fans as they entered.
Curry was like a traffic cop, directing people and telling them how to be safe.
“Thank you for your patience,” he said. “When you go into the stadium, we ask that you keep your mask on for your safety as well as everyone else.”
Wearing a mask was stressed continuously.
Everything seemed to go flawlessly. And the Tigers created an impressive model for how things should work back in Michigan, when fans are allowed to attend games.
The Tigers made it seem as if it is possible.
Fans were spread out. Nobody was allowed to use cash — credit cards only — to avoid exchanging bills. Everything was highly organized. Concession food was packaged together. And to minimize interactions of strangers, everybody entered the stadium at different gates, depending on where their seats were located.
Even a scalper got into the act, selling tickets only in pods.
As I walked around, I felt safer than going to a grocery store.
The fans return
Emily Fullerton was in Joker Marchant on the day the Grapefruit League came to a screeching halt last spring. It was March 12, 2020, and an announcement flashed across the scoreboard: “Due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball has announced that remaining Grapefruit League games will be canceled.”
She took a picture of that announcement at 4:19 p.m. and saved it in her phone. It was the last time fans saw the Tigers play in person. Last year, the Tigers played in an empty stadium, unless you count Comerica Park’s cardboard cutouts.
When baseball returned to Tiger Town, Fullerton just had to be in the stadium. So she went online, got tickets and sat on the berm on Sunday. “I love the Tigers,” she said.
Bill Alpers, 74, and his wife Jeanne, 74, who are from Traverse City but retired to Lakeland, were the first in line Sunday. “We have been here 50 years in a row,” Bill Aspers said. “We used to come down here from college.”
They have already had their first vaccine shots and are waiting for their second. “As long as everybody stays healthy and it helps somebody, we don’t mind putting masks on,” Bill Aspers said.
“It’s not that bad,” Jeanne said.
‘A little bit of buzz’
The players have been living in a strange world, isolated from the public, barred from eating indoors at Lakeland restaurants. So just seeing fans in person was a change.
“It was comforting knowing people are out there and are still coming to the game,” Tigers outfielder Christin Stewart said. “None of the fake crowd noise, and a totally different atmosphere being back out there.”
There was no interaction between the players and fans. Nobody was allowed to give an autograph.
“We need to do it safely,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “The best way to get back to normalcy is have fans in the stands for the game. Even a small spring training game, limited capacity, you could feel a tangible difference, according to a lot of guys in the dugout.”
After the game, Hinch walked outside the dugout, and looked back at his coaches and players. He pumped his fist in the air, as if he were giving high-fives from afar.
“It was good,” Hinch said. “A lot of the guys were talking about it, the atmosphere. A little bit of buzz. Just something to give yourself a normal feel.”
Setting an example
The Tigers showed what is possible on Sunday.
Hopefully, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will open things up and we will see more fans in the stands at games.
Especially at outdoor venues.
I understand the need to be safe. I support shutting things down when the numbers dictate it. I support wearing masks. And I even support being cautious.
But the Tigers set a great example on Sunday for all the other pro teams in Detroit. They made a detailed plan and kept fans spread out. Everybody was wearing masks, and everybody remained socially distant.
The Tigers have been selling tickets to games for this season, assuming that a limited number of fans eventually will be allowed into games.
Hopefully, it happens.
Hopefully, we will see fans watching college football this fall.
And hopefully, everything will start to feel normal again.
“It was kind of a breath of fresh air,” Hinch said.
Actually, it was literally fresh air. That was the best part. It was outside, in the warm sunshine. And everybody had their own space, 6 feet apart.
It felt safe and planned out.
And hopefully, someday soon, we will see something similar in Michigan.
Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.