DAN BICKLEY

Opening Day holds larger significance entering the 2021 MLB season

Apr 1, 2021, 9:00 AM
A detail view of several baseballs on the outfield grass prior to a spring training game between th...
A detail view of several baseballs on the outfield grass prior to a spring training game between the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres at Goodyear Ballpark on March 14, 2021 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Opening Day is an American institution. It’s a game that plays out in three dimensions: on the field, between the ears and inside your heart.

It always feels special. It always feels authentic. It’s the last vestige of romance and poetry in Major League Baseball. It’s the one chunk of nostalgia that analytics can’t bludgeon with a pickaxe.

This year, it’s even more significant.

Opening Day 2021 will mark our return to normalcy. You will see real fans in attendance, not cardboard cutouts. The percentages vary by city, but the numbers are significant.

Petco Park will operate at 20% capacity on Thursday when the pumped-up Padres host the Diamondbacks. The Cubs will allow 10,000 people at Wrigley Field, the largest public gathering in Chicago in over a year. The Dodgers will kick off their pursuit of immortality in Colorado, where the Rockies are welcoming over 21,000 fans.

These gatherings won’t feel premature and dangerous. Not like so many college football games during the grinding winter months of a pandemic.

These crowds will feel as hopeful to America as Opening Day feels to baseball fans. An unmistakable sign that the worst is finally over, the end is finally near.

The crowds will be a big story in the coming months. They will also be a big part of the aesthetics and the viewing experience, which is big deal in baseball.

By contrast, look at current NBA games. Even though many NBA teams are currently hosting a moderate amount of fans, you rarely see them on television. Instead, you see a reconfigured bench area, where players have newfound room to frolic. You see a segmented scorer’s table, which also looks different and weird. Game announcers are working from remote locations, which affects the entire broadcast. You can hear audible cheering at times, but NBA games are far from normal.

Same with the NFL, a sport that somehow powered through the pandemic without much scar tissue, playing every contest on the schedule and crowning a champion precisely on schedule. Even better, those sitting on the couch rarely knew the difference. The NFL looked fabulous on television because TV directors simply tightened the shot, as you can do with a rectangular field, thereby excluding all the empty seats.

Once again, I gush in appreciation for all NFL players who found the professionalism and competitive fire to perform a violent sport at the highest level without an energy exchange with the fans.

Starting Thursday, Major League Baseball will project a different look and a different vibe. Opening Day will once again be a coming-out party, a moment of powerful symbolism across our country. That has never changed.

Except this time it won’t be about hope. It will be about recovery. It will represent the thrill of being in public with thousands of like-minded individuals, finding strength in numbers, galvanized by the power of community, feeling normal once again.

When the Diamondbacks return for their home opener against the Reds next week, a whopping 20,000 people will be allowed inside Chase Field. It won’t be our first big gathering since the pandemic, given a pair of controversial political rallies staged by our former president. But it will be a cause for celebration that spreads across party lines.

It will be a great moment for a stadium with a checkered history in the Valley, a place that has hosted a World Series celebration and bursting pipes, a place that has spawned love-ins and lawsuits alike.

In so many ways, Chase Field is everything a baseball stadium shouldn’t be. And this year, we might appreciate it more than ever.

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