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Wednesday April 14th, 2021 6:16AM

Baseball's first fans of 2020 see Dodgers-Braves NLCS opener

By The Associated Press
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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Scott McIlroy reached out with his left hand as a batting practice home run clanged off a railing and hit him in the palm, the ball popping in the air before settling back into his grip as he held a cell phone in his right hand.

Count the Texas resident and Los Angeles Dodgers fan among the first in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season to catch a pre-game souvenir — and among the first ticket buyers to see live baseball in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Monday night.

Major League Baseball said it was selling 11,500 tickets per game at Globe Life Field for the series between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves and plans a similar allotment at the same ballpark when it hosts the first neutral-site World Series starting Oct. 20. McIlroy got a call from a friend knowing the longtime Dodgers fan would want to make the two-hour drive to the Dallas area.

The announced attendance was 10,700, not including those who didn't pay. Ticket prices ranged from $40 to $250 for the NLCS, and $75-450 for the World Series, which has already sold out.

About 75% of fans appeared compliant with the requirement to wear masks except when “actively” eating or drinking. Some weren't covering their nose or mouth.

“We were wondering what the mixture of fans would be,” McIlroy said. "In this new age of what we’re going through, we were just curious. When we came in, we saw a lot of Dodger blue out there.”

There were plenty of Braves logos, too, and the tomahawk chop chant was audible when Ronald Acuña Jr. stepped in as Atlanta's leadoff hitter against Walker Buehler.

“They brought it for sure, and it definitely got the adrenaline going, especially late in the game. It was intense,” Atlanta's Austin Riley said of the fans after his home run leading off the ninth sparked a four-run rally in a 5-1 victory.

It was the first MLB game of any kind with fans since March 12, when five Grapefruit League games in Florida were completed as the novel coronavirus caused the shutdown of spring training there and in Arizona.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in June that professional and college stadiums would be allowed to operate at 50% capacity, and MLB decided to sell tickets starting with the NLCS following a regular season in which attendance dropped to 0 from 68.5 million. The NFL's Dallas Cowboys have sold about 31% capacity at nearby AT&T Stadium, drawing 25,147 for Sunday's win over the New York Giants.

No tickets are being sold for the American League Championship Series between Houston and Tampa Bay at San Diego's Petco Park.

“It was really weird going on the field to get ready before the game and seeing people in general,” said Los Angeles' Kiké Hernández, who homered for the Dodgers' only run in a 5-1 loss. “It was kind of shocking for everybody to see, at least for the first few minutes. It definitely added more to this game. I missed what the roar of the crowd sounded like.”

The previous time fans attended a Major League Baseball game that counted, it also was in Texas: Game 7 of the 2019 World Series in Houston, a sellout of 43,326 when the Washington Nationals beat the Astros to win the title.

This time, seats were sold in groups of four at the new, 40,518-seat retractable roof stadium, with the empty seats between ticketed sections secured by zip ties to prevent people from sitting in them.

“It was kind of a novel thing because of the new field and there have never been fans in it,” said Jeff Wood, a Braves fan who drove about four hours from Little Rock, Arkansas. “And with this whole COVID thing, I kind of thought about it. Thought it was exciting.”

In March, Claudia Magallanes, her husband and two sons drove nine hours from Carlsbad, New Mexico, to catch spring training games in Arizona. They never saw any because of the shutdown.

When they realized fans would be allowed for the NLCS, they remembered deciding against going to World Series games in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. It was an easy call to see their first LA postseason game, even though Claudia Magallanes was headed to the airport Tuesday morning for a previous scheduled pleasure trip to Nevada.

“Friday morning he gives me the news, and I’m like, ‘Yea, yes.’ So we're all for it,” said Claudia Magallanes, who said these four tickets were paid in part by the money they got back from the canceled spring training games. “I tell him two years ago I still regret that we didn’t buy the tickets.”

Justin Farris of the Dallas suburb of Plano had his Texas Rangers cap on, with two sons wearing Rangers jerseys. It was clear why they were on their way in to the new ballpark fans didn't get to see during what was supposed to be its inaugural season.

“Wanted to see it before anybody does,” said Farris, who said he would root for the Dodgers because of Dallas native Clayton Kershaw. “And it’s going to be cleaner. It’s the cleanest it’s ever going to be.”

Eli Dills has season tickets for the Braves and lives a couple of hours north of Atlanta. He says he didn't miss any home playoff games the past two years, so he had to talk his boss into giving him the day off.

Dills was headed back home — and to work — after Game 1, but the 21-year-old Walmart manager was already thinking about the World Series.

“I’m going to be down here no doubt,” Dills said. “I’m going to tell my boss, ‘Hey, man, you can come with me.’”

___

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