TAMPA, Fla. — The gates at Steinbrenner Field opened at 11 a.m. Sunday, two hours before the Yankees hosted the Toronto Blue Jays for their first spring training game of 2021. Among the first fans to enter: Robert and Jean Koontz, who have been making this yearly trip from their home in North Carolina for two decades.
Like so many across the world, the Koontzes had their lives upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Robert, 84, and Jean, 82, called off Thanksgiving and Christmas with their large family last year. They still have 32 stockings hanging and a tree up at home as they wait to celebrate two Christmases this year: the first when everyone in their family feels safe, and then the usual one in December.
So watching their beloved Yankees play in Tampa for the next month was some semblance of normalcy despite the continued pandemic. Luckily for both: They said they were both fully vaccinated against the virus.
“We’re still careful about what we do,” Robert Koontz said through a mask. Added Jean Koontz, before they took their seats in Section 210, “It’s nice to get out.”
There were some hiccups, but fans returned en masse on Sunday to Major League Baseball stadiums, albeit spring training facilities. There are capacity restrictions, generally ranging from 9 percent to 28 percent, and mask requirements. The Yankees said they accommodated 2,637 fans, roughly 24 percent of the capacity of their spring training home since 1996.
Even in a 6-4 loss to the Blue Jays, the atmosphere felt entirely different. Children were back with gloves and waiting at the outfield railing. Adults walked the concourses with beer and hot dogs in their hands. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone waved to fans.
“It was cool,” Boone said. “Even on the bench over there, where we sit just outside the dugout there, we made reference to it a couple times with the coaches, ‘How nice is it having people in the stands?’”
He added later with a sigh, “It’s been too long.”
When Blue Jays third baseman Cavan Biggio flied out for the first out of the game, the roar of the crowd was subdued. It was still relatively quiet between pitches. The fans warmed up as the game went on.
“It felt a lot more normal,” said Michael King, a right-handed pitcher who started the game for the Yankees. “It still felt loud. Obviously compared to nothing, it’s a lot louder. It’s awesome to just kind of see movement. I’m used to the cardboard cutouts, and they’re getting more lively.”
Fans were not allowed in the stands last season until the neutral site National League Championship Series and the World Series in Arlington, Texas. The return of fans marked the end of cutouts of fans in the stands and fake crowd noise.
“That got kind of tired,” Yankees first baseman Luke Voit said of the piped-in noise. He added that it felt like it has been five years since they have played in front of fans. He said the lack of them at key moments of last year’s pandemic-shortened 60-game season — on opening day and the playoffs — was weird.
“It felt like we shouldn’t have even done it because there wasn’t fans,” he said.
For some Yankees, the return of fans carried additional significance. Outfielder Brett Gardner, the longest tenured Yankee, said last season that he didn’t want his career to finish without his family or the fans in the stands. He returned to the Yankees for his 14th major league season on a two-year deal that could be the last of his career.
His teammate Aaron Judge, the right fielder, said interacting with fans was among his favorite parts of baseball. He said he missed signing autographs, hearing fans shout things at him — good or bad — playing catch with them in the stands and chatting with them at the outfield wall. On Sunday, given the strict health and safety restrictions for players and key staff, Judge said the only interaction he could have with fans was tossing them baseballs after he finished warming up between innings.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I guess I’ll let my play be the connection. Put on a show.”
After the game, Judge said he and a few teammates reminisced about the butterflies they felt in their stomachs before their first at-bats in front of crowds again.
“We’re all excited to have some fans,” he said. “It wasn’t a packed house, but anything is better than nothing.”
Last March, the pandemic forced the suspension of the M.L.B. season with two weeks left in spring training. Most teams had their second preseason tuneup at their home stadiums as the number of coronavirus cases grew in Arizona and Florida. So this is the first spring training held amid the public health crisis, and teams have had to reconfigure their usual setups as a result.
Case in point: To reduce the time spent at the stadium for games that don’t count, Sunday’s contest was allowed to last only seven innings. And to cut down on the number of people in one place, Yankees pitchers and catchers have been practicing at the club’s minor league facility, which is just over a mile away from Steinbrenner Field.
“I’m driving back and forth every single day,” Boone said. In the near future, he said pitchers and catchers would start being phased over to the main stadium because, for example, he wanted Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber to get to know their new teammates.
Health experts have said they believe that outdoor sporting events — particularly baseball, where the majority of M.L.B. stadiums are open air — can be staged safely when coupled with social distancing and masks.
The Yankees implemented many measures: socially distanced seating clusters, so-called pods ranging from two to six seats; mobile ticketing; cashless transactions; hand sanitizer throughout the stadium; touchless features in the bathroom; and plexiglass over and around the dugout to shield people on the field and those in the first row of seats from one another.
One rule, however, wasn’t followed much. Fans over 2, including those who had been vaccinated, are required to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth “at all times” at Steinbrenner Field “except when actively eating or drinking at their ticketed seats.” A large percentage of fans were not adhering to this, and there appeared to be little enforcement.
A reminder was played over the public-address system in the third and fifth innings: “Please stay socially distant and please wear your masks.”
Toni Pisani, 69, came to Sunday’s game with her wife, Anne Coombs, 66. She said they felt safe because they were both vaccinated, wearing masks and the stadium had limited capacity.
Pisani grew up loving baseball in New York and moved to Tampa three years ago. In a normal year, Pisani, who is retired, estimated she attended about 30 spring and regular-season games in person around Florida.
Sunday was her first game since last March, which is why she was willing to pay what she said were increased prices for Yankees standing room tickets ($32 each) and loge seats ($123 each) for a later game.
“I was going through baseball withdrawal,” Pisani said.