Strikeouts and Hand Sanitizer

Baseball’s opening day — like almost everything else — is different in 2020.

Opening Day of baseball is more than a major sports holiday. It’s an ESPN Easter of sorts, a springtime reminder of the coming return of summer, and a continuation of tradition.

Like nearly everything else during the pandemic, baseball was put on hold earlier this year. As new caseloads decreased in late May and early June, some small Midwestern cities are figuring out ways to play safely.

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Here in Kalamazoo, baseball is back.

At the time of publication, Major League Baseball, which typically begins play in April, is stumbling toward an abbreviated season. Star players have already opted out, citing risks of contracting COVID-19 and several players have tested positive. Some teams are delaying practices awaiting test results.

The Kalamazoo Growlers, of the 22-team Northwoods League of college standouts, hosted Opening Day last week — only five weeks later than scheduled.

Minor league-level teams like the Growlers, which focus on developing young players, put a lot into gimmicks, giveaways, and other wacky approaches to fan fun, cultivating experiences that brings new people to the game.

This year a 13-page COVID-19 preparedness plan accompanied the standard hot dogs and on-field games and promotions.

Fans were asked to enter in one of three gates to spread crowding. Masks were required at all time when you weren’t at your seats, which was followed by almost everyone observed, besides a couple youngsters who were quickly told to put them on by their parents. Hand sanitizer was available throughout the ballpark, and there was an abundance of signage encouraging people to follow safety procedures.

The game was a sellout at 100 tickets — about 3 percent of Homer Stryker Field’s seated capacity. The bleachers on both sides of the field were empty. What felt more like 60 fans were spread out in the remaining stands, vacant seats and rows between us marked off to ensure social distancing.

During the traditional start to a baseball game in the United States — the National Anthem — players lined up six feet apart, stretching from home plate to the foul poles. The prerecorded song played over the speakers made it official: baseball, somehow, has returned. Normalcy has not returned with it.

That same day, a bar in East Lansing made national news for spreading coronavirus across the state. Several Kalamazoo area bars and restaurants announced temporary closings — some of their employees contracted the virus, or were in contact with folks who had. It may have felt like the seventh-inning stretch of the pandemic before the game, but the public’s disregard of basic safety precautions has the local and state virus statistics looking like we’re still in the second inning. As the game began, news broke that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was shutting down or restricting operations of some less-safe establishments across the state.

The cloud of the pandemic still hangs in the sky like threatening clouds, waiting to open up and ruin the game.

The Growlers are still planning to play the rest of their schedule, with precautions keeping fans safe, like a net behind the batter that keeps a foul ball from careening into the stands. For sure, the 2020 season won’t be like any played before at Homer Stryker Field — it shouldn’t be.

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