Fanless Comerica Park heralds strange beginning to Tigers' season

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

After a prolonged absence, baseball finally returned to Detroit on Monday night.

Or did it?

Yes, the Tigers played the Royals at Comerica Park, and were thumped 14-6.

But every seat, all 41,083 of them, was empty. So were the aisles, concourses and concession stands.

Steve Wade, (Cabrera jersey), 40, of Ferndale and Tom Clifton, 52, (Kaline jersey), of Sterling Heights watch the home opener with other fans outside the centerfield fence at Comerica Park.

COVID-19 has deemed that the fractured baseball season will be played in front of nobody.

And so a baseball team’s first game at home, which is one of the sweetest days in sports, and nowhere more so than in this sports-crazed burg, passed Monday without a cheer.

Unless one counts the prerecorded cheers played over the stadium loudspeakers. Which we don’t.

“It’s definitely different,” Gerry Howell of Ann Arbor said he circled the closed stadium. “It’s a one-of-kind thing.”

When it comes to the home opener, the game itself has always seemed beside the point.

It was more of a spring ritual where disparate parts of Michigan joined together to celebrate new beginnings, the return of nice weather, the chance to start over.

It was parking lot parties drenched with nostalgia as different generations experienced the same touchstones: live rock music in the morning, the smell of beer wafting from Nemo’s, the sea of caps and T-shirts bearing Olde English D’s.

But what happens when all that is stripped away?

Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who asked, if a baseball game is played and no one attends, does it still qualify as Opening Day?

“I still like it. It’s still baseball,” said Patti Young, a Detroiter perusing the D Shop at the stadium.

The normally raucous environs outside Comerica before a home opener was subdued Monday. The players’ statues on the right field concourse were positively boisterous by comparison.

Open tables proliferated at bars and there was plenty of parking to be had. At Grand Circus Park, which is normally full of revelers in years past, an empty table sat in an empty plastic booth.

One of the streets that circled the stadium was closed to traffic, which wasn’t necessary given the dearth of cars.

But there were a few flickering signs of life around Comerica, a faint acknowledgement that the beloved Tigers had returned for a new season.

About 100 people attended a party at the Detroit Athletic Club, which is just across the street from the ballpark. The swells gathered on a patio under white tents with giant baseballs used as table decorations.

Also, the sounds of the baseball game leaked into the neighborhood outside the ballpark.

Normally such sounds are drowned out by the crowd. With no crowd, outsiders could hear batters being introduced by the public address announcer, even the crack of the bat. Also heard, sadly, was the canned cheers.

Here are a few snapshots of the home opener without the pomp.

David Willis, 60, of Detroit, watches the pregame players warm-up from the centerfield fence of Comerica Park as Tigers fans prepare for opening day at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit, Monday, July 27, 2020. Willis said he has been doing this for the last 10 years from the same spot.

View from a wall

When Major League Baseball decided there wouldn’t be any fans at games, it didn’t count on Dave Willis.

Willis, 60, of Detroit has watched plenty of baseball and has never paid.

That’s because his regular viewing spot is completely free. He stands on a stadium wall just beyond right field.

He arrived several hours before the game Monday to ensure he claimed it once again.

This veteran of 10 Opening Days saw something he never spied before — a completely empty stadium.

“Weird,” he said. “It’s just weird.”

Willis has arthritis in both his knees but that didn’t stop him from climbing the four-foot wall. But he allowed himself to sit between innings.

Hidden benefits

After the long absence of baseball, Andy Anderlie and his buddies couldn’t wait any longer. So they held their own baseball game in a parking lot in the shadow of the stadium.

They’ve had Wiffle ball games on past home openers but this one was different. Instead of nine players, they had only three. And they had lots of open space in the parking lot.

“It’s tough. It’s hard to do what we want to do,” Anderlie, 33, of Oxford said about the pandemic playing havoc with baseball and other sports.

But Anderlie, who has been coming to home openers for 27 years, said this year had some hidden benefits.

For one thing, it’s much warmer in late June than early April, when the first home game is usually played.

Also, the home opener is usually held in the afternoon. With the game played at night this year, it allowed fans to sleep in.

“I won’t get into the game but I’ll still be here,” said Anderlie. “That’s going to be enjoyable.”

Lindsay Stanek, 22, of Detroit and her mom Kathy Stanek, 53, of Annapolis, Md., celebrate the home opener with a toast of tequila at the Tin Roof bar on Monday.

550 miles between her and team

You can keep Kathy Stanek out of the ballpark but you can’t keep her from Detroit.

The former Michiganian, who now lives Annapolis, Maryland, didn’t allow 550 miles to come between her and her baseball team. She always attends the first home game and this year would be no different.

“We always make a big day of it,” she said.

The big day included drinks with her daughter Lindsay at the Tin Roof restaurant and would later move to a Detroit Athletic Club eatery overlooking the ballpark.

Lindsay, who works as a waitress at the Tin Roof, made peace with the fact it wouldn’t be a profitable night for her.

“It’s not going to be capacity by any means, but I think people are excited about Opening Day,” he said.

David Walls, 70, of Warren, shops for Tigers gear at the Gameday Detroit shop Monday.

Happy MLB is giving it a chance

Dave Walls has been coming to home openers since the Tigers played at Tiger Stadium last century.

Walls, 70, of Warren allowed things are a bit different this year but he was still excited. He traipsed down to Comerica with his daughter and scoured a sports shop for Tiger decals.

“I’m ready to go. I needed something to do,” he said inside Gameday Detroit.

He wanted to check out the scene around the stadium and found it a bit slow. But that didn’t bother him, either.

His only regret was that Major League Baseball didn’t allow at least a few fans into the ballparks.

“I’m happy they are at least giving it a chance,” he said. “I think this is great.”

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Twitter: @prima_donnelly