Opening Day: Reds players excited about return of fans to Great American Ball Park

There could be as many as 12,695 fans in stadium on Opening Day

The last time fans attended a game at Great American Ball Park, many crowded onto the infield and found spots in the outfield to watch a postgame ceremony honoring broadcaster Marty Brennaman after his final game.

This was more than five months before the era of social distancing began as the pandemic took over every aspect of society. COVID-19 reduced a 162-game season to 60 games in 2020 and also prevented fans from attending games across Major League Baseball. Only pre-recorded crowd noise played over the loudspeakers prevented the few people at games last season from hearing a bat drop in the on-deck circle.

On Thursday, fans will return to Great American Ball Park as the Reds open the season against the St. Louis Cardinals. It will be far from the typical Opening Day crowd because the state is limiting capacity to 30 percent, and the fans who do attend the game will have to wear masks and sit in socially-distant pods of no more than six people. Even considering that, the atmosphere will be much improved from last summer when not even the families of the players could get into the stadium.

“Pitching in front of the fans is one of the most important parts of the game,” Reds reliever Cionel Perez said, “and for any player, it really gives you that impulse to do better out there, to get through those hard times. They motivate you to really go out there and do your best. They’re there for us. They’re there to give us an opportunity to be better.”

The Reds ranked 19th in baseball in attendance in 2019, the last season before the pandemic, averaging 22,329 fans per game. They had a sold-out crowd of 44,049 at Opening Day that season. There will be no more than 12,695 at games this season at least as long as the current restrictions are in place.

The fans in attendance won’t be able to get close to the players, not at this point in the season at least. The protocols will prevent players from signing autographs or throwing baseballs into the stands.

Those aren’t the only differences between this Opening Day and the pre-pandemic Opening Days. There will be no Findlay Market Parade. The first pitch, thrown by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, will be tossed from the stands behind the Reds dugout to the field.

The Reds experiencing Opening Day for the first time will have to wait until next year to see the true Cincinnati holiday.

“I’ve seen a bunch of pictures about the parade and just how crazy it is,” pitcher Tejay Antone said, “and I wish that we could do that and just interact with the fans finally. Obviously, the world’s not quite ready for that. We’re close, and it’ll be there next year. I’m excited to hopefully be a part of that as well next year, but I hope everyone stays safe and at least wears a mask and takes care of the person next to them and respects them while they’re having fun and coming out and enjoying us.”

The Reds finished 16-13 at Great American Ball Park last season without much of a home-field advantage outside of a familiarity with the ballpark, though the Reds grounds crew did its part to make up for the empty seats with joyous celebrations all season long. It was a season of cardboard cutouts. Hundreds of them were attached to seats in the lower seating bowl. The families of players had their own cutouts in the rows where they would have been sitting. The only fans in the stadium were the few people sitting with Reds owner Bob Castellini and his family.

The players missed everything the fans bring to games.

“I can’t wait to see everybody,” Reds outfielder Jesse Winker said. “Baseball in Cincinnati is a really big deal. It’s an honor to get to represent the city and the fans. I’m looking forward to them coming back. I’ve missed them. They’re what drive our sport. It’s going to be fun. Hopefully, we can achieve everything we want to achieve and make the city proud.”

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