No masks, no social distancing, no problem: Detroit fans enjoy ‘worry-free’ sporting events

Detroit News

Detroit — The Wave has returned to Comerica Park, in case you needed any more reminders that sports are finally, mercifully, pretty much back to normal.

Fans at Comerica Park got it going Wednesday night, during the Tigers’ game against the Seattle Mariners. Though nobody keeps records, it probably was the first Wave — you know, that synchronized fan exhibition popularized in the Motor City in 1984 — at Comerica Park since 2019. Capacity-capped crowds hadn’t even tried in April or May.

“Not that I had noticed,” said Brad Guldemond, 30, of Ferndale, a partial season-ticket holder who was at Wednesday’s game, his 10th or so game this year. “People were afraid of standing up when they weren’t supposed to.”

For the first time in more than a year, the only restrictions being placed on Michigan sporting events is on the athletic talent itself.

Starting June 1, the Tigers’ capacity cap — which had been 8,000 a game for April and May — was completely lifted. Earlier in the spring, the mask mandate was lifted for those who’ve received the COVID-19 vaccination.

The state’s lifting of outdoor gathering capacity came in time for this week’s IndyCar races on Belle Isle — the duels were canceled in 2020 — as well as the PGA Tour’s Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club. The tournament was played without fans in 2020. It is scheduled for July 1-4. Both events will draw into the tens of thousands, though officials for both events continue to take health and safety precautions.

The Detroit Grand Prix got news of the state’s restriction lift too close to the event for 100% attendance, but could see 50% of years past when 100,000 was the norm. There will be two reverse grandstands instead of three, and general-admission tickets with no grandstand access. The Rocket Mortgage Classic, which drew approximately 40,000 or 50,000 during its inaugural year, already has its grandstands back up for the third annual edition of the tournament. It will feature open-air hospitality tents, tournament tickets will be digital and concessions will be cashless.

“We also believe that a safe experience can be a fun experience,” said Jason Langwell, tournament director for the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

The RMC is bringing back the AREA 313 Celebrity Scramble, featuring the likes of Tom Izzo, Barry Sanders, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and several others, the Tuesday before the tournament starts.

“We’re all ready for a little bit of fun, and we’re gonna have some out here,” Langwell said. “It’s gonna be an incredible week.”

The Tigers, too, are keeping their eye on the ball when it comes to safety. Last week and this week, the Fox Theatre across the street from Comerica Park was hosting a pop-up vaccination clinic. The clinic runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Anybody who gets vaccinated will get two tickets to that day’s Tigers game, plus a $10 Meijer coupon.

The Tigers played the shortened 2020 season with no fans. They were welcomed back in 2021, albeit in small numbers, and with masks. First went the mask mandate and now the capacity cap is, to quote the late, great Ernie Harwell, long gone, too.

Brady Beeton, 24, of Port Huron, attended his first pro sporting event since the start of the pandemic Tuesday, when the Tigers beat the Mariners, 5-3. He attended with girlfriend Abby Davis, 26, and they sat in the right-field seats.

“It was nice. It was the first thing that felt, like, truly 100% normal in a long time,” Beeton said. “There was no reminder of anything COVID, so it was nice to get outside and have a worry-free night for once. There were very few reminders that anything had been wrong in the world.

“It was nice just to sit there, enjoy a ballgame and go grab a couple drinks.

“It felt like a normal Tigers game, like it was 2018.”

Granted, t’s not like Tigers attendance skyrocketed this week, post-restrictions. They drew 9,081 on Tuesday, 9,162 on Wednesday and 9,290 for Thursday’s 8-3, series-clinching victory. Bigger attendance is coming, albeit slowly, starting this weekend against the rival and American League Central-leading Chicago White Sox. Crowds of 15,000 or more are possible for Saturday and Sunday games, and crowds of 20,000 to 30,000 are likely later in the summer once group sales, a backbone for every front office, pick back up. Tickets for July, August and September go on sale June 18. Kids get to run the bases again, starting Sunday. Fireworks return July 2. The second half of the season will be heavy on promos and theme nights, big draws MIA since 2019.

Still, fans said you could feel the difference this week at Comerica Park, like in the first inning of Wednesday night’s 9-6 loss, when young center fielder Derek Hill went crashing into the wall to make a highlight-reel catch and rob a home run.

“Oh my gosh,” said Guldemond, “I haven’t heard that place get that loud in a long time.

“And people feel less self-conscious. They even chat more in the bathrooms.”

Also, gone are the social-distanced-inspired zip ties on seats.

Cameron Brown, 19, of Ferndale, was at Tuesday’s game, his second Tigers game of the year. He also was at the home opener, which “sold out” at 8,000 against the Cleveland Indians on April 1.

“Tuesday was a blast,” said Brown, who, during normal times, guesses he goes to about 10 Tigers games, one Lions game, a couple Pistons games and some Michigan basketball games each season. “Honestly, it was one of the most fun times I’ve had at a Tigers game during my lifetime. I was in the second row, right field, with a bunch of people gathered together all just having a good time enjoying the atmosphere.

“It was nice to have a real baseball atmosphere.

“You could definitely feel it. There was more of a buzz than usual.”

For most of the last year-plus, fans have been forced to root on their teams from the comfort of their own couches, in front of the TV. No surprise, then, there’s been some pent-up emotion (and perhaps some amnesia about how to act in public) in the return to live action — which is why security concerns are real. There have been multiple incidents of fans throwing items (popcorn, water bottles, etc.) at players during the NBA playoffs. During the PGA Championship last month, the throng of fans walking the 18th breached the security barrier, making for a nervous Mickelson and Brooks Koepka as they tried to get to the 18th green. Koepka even suggested a fan took a shot at his surgically repaired knee. The PGA of America apologized to both players.

Sports organizations like the Tigers and PGA Tour like to keep their security protocols and measures close to the vest. More broadly, though, the city of Detroit announced on Thursday it will significantly up police patrols in the city to crack down on the party atmosphere amid the city’s reopening.

“We get it — we’ve all been shuttered in place, and because we’re coming out of COVID, we’re re-emerging,” interim police chief James White said.

“We understand. But we have to do so responsibly.”

Tony Dombrowski, a fan of all Detroit sports teams who can barely even approximate how many games he typically attends in one year, was at Tuesday night’s Tigers game. It was his fifth Tigers game of the season, but first amid no restrictions. He’s also attended a Toledo Mud Hens game. That’s been it since COVID-19 hit.

Dombrowski, 22, of Roseville, has seen his online profile grow amid COVID-19, recording instant-reaction videos after games, or after draft picks, or after lottery balls.

He looked much happier recording a post-win video from Comerica Park on Tuesday, with all his buddies in Section 104, including Brown. The video drew nearly 2,000 views.

“It just feels great to get back to normal,” said Dombrowski, who also hosts a podcast called “Trash Talk,” on all things Detroit sports. “We’re seeing restrictions lifted everywhere else around us. So, seeing Comerica Park get back to normal is awesome.

“I’m excited to see what Ford Field and LCA are like this fall and winter.”

Betcha we see The Wave.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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