Comerica Park braces for a very special Opening Day — with fans

Detroit News

After six weeks of watching their shadows in the Florida sunshine, the Tigers made their annual migration north from spring training Tuesday afternoon. And when the plane landed in Detroit, they were in for a pleasant surprise.

“We got in and it was like 70 degrees — it was a little bit of a teaser,” said new manager AJ Hinch from Comerica Park, where the Tigers will celebrate Opening Day this afternoon by hosting Cleveland Indians at 1:10 p.m.

Thursday’s opener will be unlike any other and feature several thousand special guests: the fans. Real-live humans will replace cardboard cutouts, back in the ballpark after an 18-month absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The weather at first pitch in Detroit will feel more like an April Fools’ joke, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark. Gusts from 15-20 mph will blow out of the northwest, dropping the wind chill into the teens.

But that’s sort of an Opening Day tradition in Detroit, too.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” joked Buck Farmer, the Tigers’ veteran reliever. “I guess that’s part of it.”

So are the fans again, and that has the Tigers cheering. The club expects a “sellout” crowd of just more than 8,000, where the stadium capacity is limited to 20% in accordance with guidelines established by Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services.

It’ll hardly be a typical Opening Day scene in Detroit, with restaurants and bars downtown capped at 50% capacity and city officials banning tailgating while promising strict enforcement.

“We’re asking you that if you do not have a ticket to the game, please do not come into the city,” Mayor Mike Duggan said earlier this week, citing the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in southeast Michigan.

But if you do have a ticket, well, come on down. The Tigers have missed you just as much as you’ve missed them. Maybe even more so. When the ballpark gates open at 11:30 a.m., it will have been 553 days since the last time the Tigers played a game in front of fans in Detroit. That was Sept. 26, 2019, when they lost 10-4 to the Minnesota Twins in front of an announced crowd of 17,557, and months before anyone had heard of the coronavirus.

Last year, the Tigers joined the rest of the league in playing an abbreviated 60-game season without much fanfare, or any fans in the stands, due to the pandemic.

“It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Tigers general manager Al Avila recalled. “It was like watching Gulf Coast League games on the back fields. The only difference was the piped-in crowd noise.”

Spring training in Lakeland offered a glimpse of what was to come, and an audible distinction, with crowds of up to 2,000 allowed for Grapefruit League games at Joker Marchant Stadium this year.

“I mean, it was a completely different environment,” Hinch said. “You talk to anybody that’s been in a quiet stadium versus a little bit of buzz and an atmosphere. Even in a small spring-training setting, we could feel the difference. The energy in the ballpark is just different.

“Now, it’s gonna look a little bit different in a 40,000-seat stadium with 8,000 people in it. But I think everybody will agree that anything is better than nothing. … Baseball is better with fans in it, safely, and we’re one step closer to getting that way.”

It’s a step filled with precautions and protocols. Fans will have to fill out wellness surveys before arriving at the stadium. They’ll be seated in socially-distanced pods, with no-cash sales at concession stands and grab-and-go options available on the concourse. (The Tigers also are adding a “mobile wallet” feature through the MLB Ballpark app that’ll allow fans to order concessions from their seats and then pick them up at an express order line.)

The Ferris wheel and carousel will remain off-limits for now, and kids won’t be running the bases on Sundays just yet. But there will be hot dogs and pretzels and soda and beer and many of the other sights and smells you’d expect. Including masks, of course, which must be worn by spectators except when “actively” eating or drinking.

“No complaints from me — that’ll help keep us warm, right?” laughed Erin Mills, a Tigers fan from Waterford Township who plans to be in the stands with her husband, Ken. “I think we’re all used to inconvenience in our lives by now, and I hope people understand we’re not in the clear yet. But I don’t care how cold it is, it’ll just feel good to be sitting outside watching a Tigers game again.”

Tigers officials have been preparing for this day for months, and stadium workers have been busy all week with final prep work for Thursday’s grand reopening. And while it won’t be a full crew, given the crowd limits in place for now, there’s a level of anticipation here that’s hard to deny.

Just ask Jesse Pappas, who was at the ballpark Wednesday setting up the Authentics Collections souvenir shop on the concourse. She was elated to hear the news a couple of weeks ago that Michigan was expanding stadium seating limits, up from an initial plan to allow 1,000 fans.

“Oh, we were so excited,” said Pappas, who lives in Troy. “Just so thrilled to have the fans back.”

Her co-worker, Brendan Sanders of Livonia, noted their souvenir shop hasn’t been open in more than 18 months, and once the dust had been cleared back in February, it was time to update the inventory. Nearly half of the 2021 Opening Day lineup wasn’t around for the 2019 season.

“There was a lot of stuff from players who aren’t on the team anymore,” Sanders said. “We had to clean a bunch of stuff out.”

But after trying to make ends meet through direct sales and online auctions last season, they’re happy to be back in business on gamedays again.

“If there’s no fans, there’s no point in us being here,” Sanders said. “The fans make it work. The fans run this.”

For Hinch, running out onto the field Thursday will mean a little something more as well. It will be his first game in a Tigers uniform since his days as a backup catcher in Detroit in 2003. And it’ll be his first MLB game as a manager since Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. Hinch sat out all of last season serving an MLB suspension for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, which led to his firing in Houston.

The 46-year-old was hired last November by the Tigers to help shepherd this franchise through its rebuilding effort, much as he did with the Astros, who went to the playoffs four times in his five years as manager there following a decade-long postseason absence.

“It’s special for managers and coaches and players,” he said of Opening Day. “Bringing a team to a city with some hope and optimism that things are gonna get better and be better. The expectations are starting to get a little bit higher. So at least internally, we have a lot of excitement for this club and where we’re at.

“Opening Day is only one day. But it is one of the most energetic days that you can imagine, no matter what your role is.”

Or what the weather forecast says, for that matter.

“It doesn’t bother me,” smiled Matthew Boyd, the Seattle native who’ll be the Tigers’ starting pitcher against the Indians for the opener. “It’s what I grew up in. Cold and wet, I’m home. And if it’s just cold, that’s not too bad, either.”

Especially when you’ve got some company, for a change.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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