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Sunday June 20th, 2021 6:17PM

What cold? Frigid temps can't stop joy as fans return to MLB

By The Associated Press
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CHICAGO (AP) — Wearing a Chicago Cubs jacket and hat, Marc Passoni took in the moment. His buddy, Greg Cooper, stood nearby on his 59th birthday, holding an orange sign that read “First Masked Game 4-1-21.”

It was windy and cold at Wrigley Field, and neither of them cared all that much. They were home.

“It's life-changing,” said Passoni, 40, of Springfield. “After the year we just had, not being able to touch our family, go to church, do anything, this is like church to me, baby. We're home and we're going forward.”

Said Cooper: “Best place on Earth to be today. I don't care if it's 30 degrees or 10 degrees.”

It was much warmer than that, actually — a toasty 36 as the Cubs hosted Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Opening day marked the return of fans to ballparks across the country after they were shut out last season because of the coronavirus pandemic. While there were small crowds for last year's NL Championship Series and World Series in Arlington, Texas, the cathedrals of the sport were mostly empty all summer long.

Not on this day, though. These openers were all about crowds at Wrigley and Yankee Stadium. About the cheers in snowy Detroit, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.

“It’s great being back to the park," said Fred Grant, 64, of Canton, Michigan, at Comerica Park as Detroit played Cleveland.

“It is a little cold. This has not got the feel of an opening day. It feels more like the Tigers when they lost a hundred games, with 8,000 fans here. But it’s great to be back,” he said.

Bundled up, Grant wasn't in his seat in middle innings. He was watching the game from up on the concourse level, where there was a bit of sun.

Limited capacities were the norm everywhere but Texas, which was allowed to fill 100% of Globe Life Field. But there were actual real fans everywhere, none of the piped-in crowd noise from last year.

“I’m a season-ticket holder, so I was just aching to get to a game and get out of the house,” Aaron Wilberding, 38, said as he arrived at Milwaukee's American Family Field for the Twins-Brewers matchup.

“Watching it on TV is one thing, but being able to come to a game was just the one thing we were just looking forward to the most. We were walking up and it was kind of surreal, that it was finally happening we were actually here," he said.

The fans were definitely happy about their return and so were the players and coaches. Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash enjoyed the atmosphere in Miami after the Marlins had about 7,000 in the crowd during Tampa Bay's 1-0 win.

“Awesome. It was awesome,” Cash said. “We’ll take whatever percentage these ballparks and these cities allow. It’s a better game with our fans.”

Fans and players were greeted by wicked weather in much of the nation. The Orioles-Red Sox game at Fenway Park in Boston was postponed because of wet, cold conditions.

About 12,000 people were bundled up against a gametime temperature of 37 degrees and occasional snow flurries at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, one of the coldest opening days in the club’s history. The state of Ohio allowed teams playing outside sports to have 30% of the venue's capacity.

There were still some signs that baseball is a little different as the COVID-19 pandemic moves into year two. The biggest boos in Milwaukee arguably came in the sixth inning when fans discovered that the franchise’s famed sausage race would take place on the videoboard instead of on the field.

But no one was doing much complaining, not compared to the situation a year ago.

“Without fans, we don’t have a game. It’s super important to our country to have fans be back in the stands to be able to buy tickets and hot dogs and cheer on their team," Colorado outfielder Charlie Blackmon said Wednesday. "That’s the essence of baseball. It’s awesome where we’re at compared to where we were last year. I look forward to what it’s going to look like midsummer.”

In the Bronx, where the gametime temperature for the Yankees' game against the Blue Jays was 43 degrees, some fans entered the stadium with navy Yankees blankets that were still wrapped in plastic.

A reduced group of Bleacher Creatures shouted the Roll Call from the right-field seats in the top of the first, and first baseman Jay Bruce raised his right arm in in a spirited response.

In Seattle, fans were allowed back at a professional sporting event in the state of Washington for the first time since March 7, 2020, when the Seattle Sounders played the Columbus Crew in an MLS match. The Mariners, Sounders and Seattle Seahawks completed the 2020 seasons without fans in attendance. Only a couple hundred fans were allowed at college basketball games in the state beginning in February, and those were largely limited to family and close friends.

The Mariners were permitted 9,000 fans at T-Mobile Park for the start of the season and quickly sold out the opening series with San Francisco. The team hopes as vaccination rollout continues there will be increases in allowed attendance numbers.

“I often said last year that when you went out during batting practice, it was kind of normal,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “But as you walked out for the game to start and the national anthem was played and looked around, there’s nobody there. It just didn’t feel right. It just didn’t have that same electricity in the ballpark. I missed it. I know the players missed it."

___

Brandt reported on this story from Phoenix. AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum and AP Sports Writers Pat Graham, Steve Megargee, Noah Trister, Mitch Stacy, Tim Reynolds and Tim Booth contributed to this story.

___

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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