‘My favorite day’: Fans revel in Opening Day

Detroit News

Detroit — It’s cold. It’s April. It’s time to start the baseball season in Detroit.

The Tigers and Indians opened up to blizzard conditions. But hardy fans got things underway unofficially this morning. Though COVID-19 health precautions have restricted some of the traditional celebrations, establishments near and around Comerica Park are open to welcome anyone looking to start the party — and to stay warm.

The ballpark is allowed fans at 20% capacity, and restaurants have a limit of 100 customers or 50% of their capacity. The Detroit Police Department has banned tailgating.

But Opening Day was too big a lure for some people to pass up.

A tribute to those lost

The Tigers took the pregame pagentry to a whole new level Thursday, paying tribute to those lost to COVID-19 and those who’ve helped keep people safe.

The Tigers, in a video montage, memorialized Tigers fans lost to COVID-19 in the last year, while Angels Davis sang “Amazing Grace.”

Then, they honored some area first responders, before Buck Farmer took the microphone to thank the first responders, as well as the some 8,200 fans in attendance.

“Just want to welcome y’all back to watch us play, and we thank you for the love and the support you always show us,” Farmer said. “Get this season started off right. Go Tigers!”

A party downtown

Even after the first pitch, fans still partied on, despite the city’s health department urging people to stay home if they don’t have tickets.

Bars such as the Old Shillelagh on Brush and Monroe saw a steady crowd of fans during the game. While bartenders had to yell for some customers to pull their masks up, social distancing guidelines and capacity limits were still followed.

“I respect the guidelines. We picked a place that said that they were going to honor the social distancing, which they are doing a great job here, and I have my mask so I felt safe,” said Pamela Sierzan, 52, who said she’s attended Opening Day since 2006.

As the fighter jets flew over the city to commemorate the start of the game, Eminem blared from the bar’s outside speakers, drawing fans in. Someone dressed in a Tigers costume danced with people in the streets to the music.

A family outing

As it got closer to game time, fans were going inside the stadium and longer lines began to form outside the gates and around the bars.

However, the threat of COVID-19 still lingered as Tigers masks were given out and signs that usually remind people that bags aren’t allowed inside the stadium also made it known that masks were mandatory.

For the Thomey family, the experience of being at the Tigers first home game of the season as a family was worth the cold and COVID-19 restrictions.

“I like watching the game, it makes me feel like summer, makes me feel like a kid again, so I love that feeling,” said Jessica Thomey, 38. “We got our kids with us this year, it’s our first time as a family, so we’re going to just take it back to basics with peanuts and Cracker Jack and hotdogs.”

“And ice cream,” 8-year-old Cora added.

Cora said her favorite part of the game is eating the stadium food and seeing the Tigers win.

Restrictions chafe for fans, business owners

Sal Abuliai, the owner of the Ham Shop Cafe on the western edge of Greektown, said he and other restaurant owners are “upset” that Detroit Mayor Duggan asked people without tickets to the Detroit Tigers Opening Day game to stay out of downtown Detroit on Thursday.

“What kind of proposition is that?” Abuliai asked. “He’s telling people not to come downtown to support small businesses. Why not tell them to come down, keep their distance and wear a mask?”

He then gestured toward his dining room, where only two tables were occupied area, adding, “Look at this, empty.”

Nearby, the The Old Shillelagh bar on Monroe Street was doing a brisk business.

Planes and helicopters flew overhead, carrying advertising banners, a typical sight for the kickoff of the season.

About 11:30 a.m., a Detroit Police Department SUV drove past a nearby parking lot where two men were tailgating. A woman’s voice announced over the SUV’s loudspeaker that no tailgating was allowed, and the men should “Break it up.”

Greg Zdan, 29, of Canton Township was one of those men. His Ford Ranger was parked in the lot off Madison and he was cooking bratwurst with his cousin. He said he’s been coming to Opening Day for 22 years and had a ticket to Thursday’s game.

“I think it’s stupid,” Zdan said about the loudspeaker announcement. “We’re not bothering anyone. We’re here in a parking lot and we’re not bothering anyone.”

Early at the ballpark

The day started with Comerica Park security guards setting up metal detectors and crowd control barriers in front of the entrances.

A sound system being set up at Tin Roof Bar could be heard just across the street. And fans slowly started to trickle onto surrounding sidewalks that, in previous years, had been packed with baseball lovers dressed in orange and blue.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on the rise, a typical energetic and jam packed Opening Day has been reduced to a quieter and socially distanced scene in downtown Detroit.

“Today looks a little different, feels a little different, but we’re excited to be down here,” said Starr Rupkey, 34, of Lake Orion. “We weren’t sure what to expect. We weren’t sure if restaurants would have long lines. If people would be down here, hanging out. I know you can’t tailgate but we weren’t really sure what it would be like so we thought we’ll make it feel how it normally does and head down super early.”

Rupkey and her husband, Jordan, have came to Comerica Park on Opening Day for the past 12 years. They started dating by camping out overnight to buy game tickets. Last year was the first Opening Day they missed.

“We love opening days, it’s one of our favorite traditions so we were sad to miss it last year,” Rupkey said.

Baring the cold

With tailgating banned for the game, the parking lots surrounding the stadium were empty of any grills, bean bag tosses or beer pongs.

It wasn’t uncommon to see several police vehicles riding around, monitoring the area.

Dana Schultz and two of her friends were some of the only people who sat outside their cars Thursday morning.

The gang had originally planned to go to a few bars in place of tailgating but Schultz received a call that they received tickets to see the game.

“It’s my favorite day of the year, I come down every year for probably close to a decade. And I’m masked up and I’m ready to have fun,” Schultz, 40, of Grosse Point Woods said. “You have to live your life, as long as you’re being safe.”

Continuing a tradition

Standing at the corner of East Adams and Witherell, near the tigers and the bats at the entrance of Comerica Park, four hours before game time, Rob Cotton, 43, of Tecumseh noted: “It’s a lot deader than it used to be.”

Cotton was part of a trio that came a long way to continue an Opening Day tradition, along with friends Kevin Bolton, 49, of Dundee and Derek Vassalo, 49, of Greenville, South Carolina. The three men valued the tradition before, but lost it last year.

That’s why it was so important for them to be among the 8,200 ticketed fans in attendance at Thursday’s game.

“They were able to get an extra ticket, so I hopped on a plane,” Vassalo said.

He went to a Carolina Panthers NFL game last fall, one of about 5,000 fans, and likened the experience to a “preseason practice.”

He expected the game Thursday would have the same feel. But it was the Tigers and it was Opening Day and it was worth it.

Near the stadium, a band covered “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers as snow fell.

The high will get above freezing Thursday, but not much. Temperatures aren’t expected to reach 40.

Earlier this week, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan advised people against thinking Thursday would be “one of those opening days” with bars stretching capacity limits. Due to the pandemic, Duggan said, the city would be enforcing 50% capacity limits.

Downtown, near the ballpark, is about as busy as a normal Thursday.

“Normally, cold would not keep people away,” Bolton said.

Parking lots were quoting prices of $8 and $10, rather than the $50 that was possible on previous Opening Days.

Vaccinated and taking precautions

Perhaps one Opening Day tradition stayed the same; bitter cold weather to start the season. Snow flurries fell as temperatures reached 28 degrees downtown.

The live band playing at Tin Roof yelled out “Let’s go Tigers” and fans walking by responded “Nose is runny.”

However, despite the freezing temperatures, Tigers fans were still charged up for the game and season.

“It’s a Detroit holiday,” said Amber Szlag, 38, of Warren. “My husband and I have been coming down for a ton of years so it’s something that we enjoy doing and we have my parents down here, too. So it’s just a lot of fun to meet out here and celebrate with everybody. It’s the beginning of the baseball season, it’s our favorite time to be down here.”

Szlag and her parents are fully vaccinated and her husband has an appointment scheduled in the next week. For many fans, being vaccinated offered a sense of comfort while gathering and celebrating inside bars.

“We’re trying to feel normal as best as you can,” said Shae Bieth, 28, of Dearborn. “I feel pretty comfortable, thankfully my job gave me the opportunity to get vaccinated … so I feel a lot better going out and about but we’re still being smart and masking up.”

“We want to socialize and have fun and just do the best we can in the circumstances we have without breaking the rules. We’re not looking to break the rules, we’re just looking to find some normal,” said Bieth’s mother, Kim Hughes, 58, of Lansing.

Some things never change

On another corner of Adams and Witherell, a preacher stood on a stool and ranted about sin and sinners.

Another man wore a sandwich board that read “Ye must be born again” on one side and “Jesus saves from hell” on the other.

Todd DeMarce, 56, of Harrison Township was one of a group of seven who was out among the people.

“It’s a family tradition,” DeMarce said. Opening Day for the Tigers means as much to the family as opening day of hunting means to others, he said.

After spring 2020 when the tradition was halted, he said, “it’s a little bit of a sign of normalcy to be back down here.”

Normal, except for the “ghost town” feel.

The cold, he said, wasn’t that unusual.

“My normal Opening Day ritual is to sweep off my car” of snow, DeMarce said. “This was Mother Nature’s April Fool’s joke.”

‘Always a fun time’

Groups of friends and families gathered at nearby bars while others cruised down Woodward on rolling pubs.

“Detroit is a good place to be, baseball is one of the hearts and souls of our city and if you can come down and be festive and be safe at the same time, why not do it,” said Jermaine Carter, 40, of Detroit who has been celebrating Opening Day for the past 15 years.

One fan’s excitement could not be contained to just Tigers gear and apparel. Chris Tessmar took off work and drove downtown from Macomb Township dressed in a curly, black wig, John Lennon-style sunglasses and a black top hat.

“I’m dressed like a rock star because I feel like a rock star … I’m all about having fun,” said Tessmar, 57. “Today is a holiday. Today marks the start of spring and baseball and it’s always a fun time in Detroit.”

A veteran and a rookie

Paige Archibald, 32, and Emma Cashero, 22, of Taylor didn’t get game tickets — too expensive. They came downtown anyway.

“We were gonna go to the game,” Archibald said. “But we’re just here for the party.”

Archibald is a 12-time veteran of Opening Day.

“Besides last year, I’ve never missed a year,” Archibald said. “It’s just part of Detroit.”

If this were a normal Thursday, the roommates would be at work.

“Opening Day is a holiday,” Archibald said.

Normally on opening day, “you can’t walk the streets. You can’t find a parking spot,” Archibald said. “People would be tailgating and playing beer pong, and they would’ve started at 6 a.m.”

2021 is Cashero’s first Opening Day.

“We waited long enough,” Cashero said.

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