By Amy Tennery
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Yankee Stadium's gates swung open for the first time in nearly 18 months on Thursday, as elated and emotional fans welcomed back their Bronx Bombers after a season played to empty stands amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fans young and old streamed into the park as an organist played the Big Apple anthem "New York, New York", the latest hint that life may slowly be starting to get back to normal.
"It’s surreal. I didn’t think there would be fans this year," said Nicole Marinello, a 34-year-old middle school teacher from Brooklyn who lives and breathes Yankees baseball and watched virtually all of last year's 60-game season on TV.
Unbothered by the chilly, 45-degree Fahrenheit weather and the drizzle speckling her navy blue satin Yankees jacket, Marinello watched her team warm up from the stands, one of some 9,000 fans allowed inside the stadium, which opened to 20% capacity in accordance with state regulations.
"Very emotional to be here. It’s been a long year for New York so it’s nice to be back to normal," said Marinello, as her brown eyes filled with tears and voice quaked. "This is normal."
A little more than a year ago, MLB announced it was putting its 2020 campaign on hold, as the professional sports world ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic. In July, it kicked off a shortened, 60-game regular season, played entirely without fans. Attendees were permitted at the National League Championship Series and World Series.
This season will see a return to the standard 162-game format, with fans allowed to attend games for all 30 teams, a welcome dose of normalcy for MLB, which took an estimated more than $6 billion hit last year.
There were early signs on Thursday, however, that it would be anything but business as usual, after the Washington Nationals' home opener against the New York Mets had to be put on hold a day after the Nationals said one of their players had tested positive for COVID-19.
With ballparks across the country mandating mask-wearing and social distancing, Yankee Stadium enforced its own rules for fans, requiring proof of either a COVID-19 vaccine or negative test to enter the stadium.
The team was one of 11 MLB clubs to open its facilities as a vaccine center during the off-season.
Brendan Condon, a 36-year-old Brooklyn-born Yankees fan who lives in Delaware, drove two and a half hours to attend his 18th consecutive Opening Day – not counting last year.
"There’s an asterisk there," said Condon, who works at a pharmacy and has been administering coronavirus vaccinations.
"I walked up the block from the parking garage and once you see the lights and the facade, you get those chills. No matter what, I’ve been to hundreds of games, but it’s the same every year for that first one – you get those chills, that excitement."
The Yankees were unable to bring home a win, however, ceding an early lead to lose 3-2 in the tenth inning to divisional rivals the Toronto Blue Jays.
Starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, who had eight strikeouts on the day including his 100th as a Yankee, left the game in frustration after giving up a game-tying homer in the sixth inning.
"I just want that slider back," he told reporters.
"Just to feel the energy of the people in the park was welcome. Family being here certainly after not being able to see me much last year means a lot," the three-time All-Star said.
Manager Aaron Boone struck an optimistic tone, batting aside concerns over his offense and calling the return of fans "awesome".
"It felt like a bigger crowd than (20% capacity)," said Boone. "We just couldn’t push through for them today but it was not something that any of us take for granted… it’s different, it’s better, it’s the way it needs to be."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery, editing by Ed Osmond)