The spread-out crowd about 10 minutes before first pitch

As we all know, Thursday was Opening Day.  Opening Day is always special, but this year it was a little more special – with a limited number of fans welcome at all stadiums, it in many ways was the first day of “normal baseball” since the pandemic started. Personally, it was my first day back at Yankee Stadium since October 15, 2019, when I watched then-Astro Gerrit Cole best Luis Severino and the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS.  It’s been a long time, friends.

In a lot of respects, Thursday was a typical day at the ballpark, like many that we all experienced before COVID took over the world.  However, there were definitely some experiential differences, and I wanted to take this opportunity to walk through this first step into relative baseball normalcy in case any of our readership are weighing their own returns to the ballpark.

Safety and Security

I’ll get this out of the way first – I chose to go to Opening Day based on the vaccination and antibody status of the four people in our pod. Given that the venue was open air and limited capacity, I felt that, taking immunity status into account, it was no less safe than taking a masked subway ride or walking in the park, both of which are things I do regularly.  I encourage everyone to make their own decisions based on personal health considerations and official guidance.

Outside the ballpark, security was the usual cluster. Gate 6 had massive lines by 12:30pm despite limited crowds, and there really didn’t appear to be anyone directing traffic or telling people where to go.  Of note, there was no CLEAR line or any other form of expedited entry.  At the gates, staff seemed to be attempting to encourage some form of social distancing (only waving a few people/a single “pod” through at a time). 

The Yankees require either proof of full vaccination (14 days past the last shot) or proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of game time for PCR tests, or within 6 hours for rapid antigen tests.  Once we made it to the front of the line, we had to present our vaccine-or-test proof along with official ID (passport, drivers’ license, or other form of government photo ID), and then went through the usual Yankee Stadium metal detectors.  All told, it took us about 10 to 15 minutes to get through at Gate 4, but once the Stadium goes to higher capacity I can imagine security lines will be a mess.  Hopefully the Yankees are up to that logistical challenge as we move forward in the season.

The Stadium

Once inside, I had planned to walk around the stadium and methodically document what I saw on each level for purposes of this article.  What actually happened may have been me skipping down the concourse, buoyed by the sheer joy of being back at the stadium.  You could feel the same energy from a lot of people who were there Thursday – it was cold, it was drizzling, but 10,000 Yankees fans were thrilled to be back after a pretty dark year.  

My pod was just happy to be there (I’m the ginger).

The relative emptiness and the context of the pandemic was apparent in a few ways – the elevators, which are usually a shoulder-to-shoulder experience with elevator attendants letting masses of people off at the 200 and 300 levels, are now unmanned, with boxes marked in each corner to encourage social distancing.  My limited observation was that most fans respected this new reality and were not jostling to get on and off the elevators, waiting for the next one if another pod got on first.

The actual seats were similarly distanced – we were in the grandstand, and alternating groups of seats were physically roped off so that pods were not in close contact with each other.  We had a group of four a few rows behind us and a few rows in front of us, and the section was sparsely populated enough that we were not constantly passing other people on the way to and from the seats.  We remained masked except when eating or drinking, and it appeared as though those sitting by us mostly did, as well. My experience in the grandstand did not appear to be universal – the bleachers and standing room decks, for example, looked a lot more crowded and like there was a lot less enforced distancing (the Roll Call was present and loud), so your mileage may vary based on where your tickets are or where you choose to be within the ballpark.

Otherwise, things were more normal than I expected, in sometimes disappointing ways.  The Yankees had apparently done a lot of hyping of mobile/contactless food and drink ordering, but that didn’t really seem to pan out – there were a few concession stands at field level where you could do pickup through UberEats, but from what we saw on the 300 level and 200 level, you get your food and beer the same way you did prior to the pandemic.  Options were somewhat limited, as most of the concession carts were not open and there was no in-seat beer-and-crackerjack slinging.  To me, this isn’t something that particularly impacted my enjoyment of the day, as I did manage to get my greatly-missed Yankee Stadium chicken tenders without hassle, but it is worth noting that many of the concession workers who made our pre-pandemic viewing experience pleasant may still be out of a job.  I look forward to the day when more people can responsibly be brought into the ballpark and the Yankee Stadium Concessions Machine is up and running at full capacity.

The Experience

The Yankees were clearly trying to offer the full in-game experience while keeping in-person appearances limited.  The first pitch, thrown out by Bernie Williams, was recorded from a different location and projected on the center-field scoreboard, as were the anthems, God Bless America, and the “Veteran of the Game.”  The grounds crew inexplicably did not participate in the traditional playing of YMCA. Otherwise, a ballgame is a ballgame.  It felt good.  It felt the same.

We were just thrilled to be there, despite the frustrating outcome of the game. The crowd was small, but the vibes were great, at least from my vantage point.  It felt a little different, but there’s really no place like home.