Tigers' home opener felt 'a little different' but fans excited to be at Comerica Park

Detroit — For more than a century, the Tigers' home opener has represented hope and renewal, but after not being able to attend baseball games last year because of the pandemic, fans Thursday expressed those sentiments were more poignant than usual.

After an 18-month hiatus, fans welcomed the return of baseball to Comerica Park, although there were signs inside and outside the ballpark that the Detroit Tigers' 121st home opener was not business as usual.

"This is a strange Opening Day," said Tina Manoogian of Royal Oak, who attended the Tigers' 3-2 win over the Cleveland Indians with her friend and workmate, Theresa Kalohn of Oxford. "There's barely anyone here — but just being here makes me feel alive."

The crowd files into Comerica Park for the Detroit Tigers' home opener on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently eased COVID-19 restrictions that would have capped attendance at 1,000 fans at Comerica Park, upping the crowd size to roughly 8,000, or 20% of the park's capacity.

Many fans in Thursday's sparse crowd huddled under blankets amid below-freezing temperatures, snow flurries and harsh winds. Inclement weather is an Opening Day tradition in Detroit, but other customs had to be altered inside and outside the stadium.

Dae Schroeder and Will Anderson cheer as the Tigers taker to the field, with snow falling, for the home opener at Comerica Park on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last week banned tailgating outside the ballpark — an edict that was enforced Thursday by a Detroit police officer who warned Canton Township resident Greg Zdan over her police SUV's loudspeaker to stop cooking bratwurst in a parking lot near the ballpark.

"Tailgating is not allowed," the officer said. "Break it up."

Zdan, who said he had a ticket for the game, complied, but said of the order: "I think it's stupid."

"We're not bothering anyone," said Zdan, 29, who added Thursday was his 22nd time attending the team's home opener. "We’re here in a parking lot not bothering anyone."

Starr Rupkey, 34, of Lake Orion said it felt good to attend a baseball game again. 

Fans are socially distanced during the national anthem at Comerica Park in Detroit Thursday, April 1, 2021.

“Today looks a little different, feels a little different, but we're excited to be down here,” she said. “We weren't sure what to expect. We weren't sure if restaurants would have long lines, (or) if people would be down here hanging out. I know you can't tailgate but we weren't really sure what it would be like so we thought we'll make it feel how it normally does and head down super early.”

Rupkey said she and her husband, Jordan, have come to Comerica Park for the home opener for the past 12 years. They started dating by camping out overnight to buy game tickets. Last year was the first one they missed. 

“We love Opening Days," Rupkey said. "It’s one of our favorite traditions so we were sad to miss it last year."

Downtown bars started filling up hours before Thursday's game. Even after the first pitch, fans still partied on, despite the city’s health department urging people without tickets to stay home.

People line up to enter the Tin Roof, across the street from Comerica Park, on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Bars such as the Old Shillelagh on Brush and Monroe saw a steady crowd of fans before and during the game. While bartenders had to yell for some customers to pull up their masks, social distancing guidelines and capacity limits still appeared to be followed. 

“I respect the guidelines. We picked a place that said that they were going to honor the social distancing, which they are doing a great job here, and I have my mask so I felt safe,” said Pamela Sierzan, 52, who said she's attended the team's home opener since 2006. 

As fans gathered near the ballpark's gates prior to the game, they got more reminders that all was not back to normal.

The plastic baskets normally used to hold keys and other metal objects while their owners move through the metal detectors were replaced by disposable cardboard trays. Fans were required to fill out an online health questionnaire before they were allowed into the park. 

The traditional ceremonial first pitch was held before the game, but it was a recording of Detroit firefighter Joshua Bradley tossing the ball to his son, Jackson.

Detroit-born soul vocalist Angela Davis sang "Amazing Grace" while photos of Michiganians who had died from COVID-19 flashed on the screen before local gospel star Marvin Winans sang the national anthem.

Almost every other concession stand was closed. Team officials barred cash transactions inside the ballpark, while "reverse ATMs" were set up to exchange cash for debit cards.

Fans still hung around the outfield statues and took selfies as usual, but their faces were covered with masks, as required unless they were eating or drinking. Ushers carried paddle signs bearing the message "Thank you," on one side, and "Mask up, Detroit" on the other.

But on the field, other than the masks worn by umpires and coaches, the game was the same as it's been for more than a century — which warmed the heart of Steve Clarfelt of Waterford Township.

Families and fans take photos by the big Tiger statue outside Comerica Park on Thursday, April 1, 2021.

"It's just great to be back here watching baseball again," said Clarfelt, president of the Detroit Baseball Society, which organizes an annual Detroit Baseball Dinner that was canceled last year because of the pandemic.

"Hopefully by mid-summer, we can get closer to 50% (of the ballpark's capacity allowed inside)," he said. "I understand we have to be careful. Safety first."

For the Thomey family, the experience of being at the first home game of the season as a family was worth the cold and COVID-19 restrictions. 

“I like watching the game, it makes me feel like summer, makes me feel like a kid again, so I love that feeling,” said Jessica Thomey, 38, of Plymouth. “We got our kids with us this year, it's our first time as a family, so we're going to just take it back to basics with peanuts and Cracker Jack and hotdogs.”

“And ice cream,” 8-year-old Cora added. 

ghunter@detroitnews.com