Don't play ball! Fans, others mourn loss of Detroit's biggest party, Opening Day

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The early wakeup call. The rare Bud Light before noon. The rare second Bud Light before noon. The crowds. The smiles. The first ballpark frank. The bunting. The seventh-inning stretch (or wobble). The smell of the great outdoors. The optimism, oh, that optimism.

Opening Day in Detroit, there really is nothing like it.

And this year, there literally is nothing like it.

An empty Comerica Park.

"For the past few years, Opening Day was a time to go home and visit my parents and see some old friends," said Birmingham native Frederick Link, 44, who lives in Zurich, Switzerland. 

He started coming home for every Opening Day, starting in 2010, and has only missed one year since.

This will be the second, because, well, there's no Opening Day.

"This year, it will probably be Week 4 of barely leaving my apartment," Link said. "I'm feeling homesick for Detroit, and it's been a lot of Detroit sports on YouTube, especially (Kirk) Gibson's home run against the Padres in 1984."

Frederick Link, left, at the Tigers' home opener in 2015.

There have been rainouts and snowouts, and even strikes that have nixed Opening Day in Detroit before — but only by a day or so, in the weather's case, or a few weeks, in the strikes' case.

This year, we have no clue when Opening Day will be — in Detroit, or anywhere. The coronavirus pandemic has shut down pretty much all sports, with the NBA and NHL suspended indefinitely, and MLB delayed until at least mid-May, and even that seems like a pipe dream at this point.

For Detroit, the home opener was scheduled for Monday, 1:10 p.m., against the Kansas City Royals. The season opener was supposed to be last Thursday, at Cleveland.

"I have been to every Opening Day in Detroit since 1990, excluding 1995 (the strike), and 2003, '04 and '05, when I lived out in western Canada," said Greg Layson, 43, of LaSalle, Ontario, just outside Windsor. "I have been to games where the snow was so hard I couldn't see home from right field at Tiger Stadium. I've been to games so cold, I left after a leadoff homer by the Twins. I've worn shorts. I've worn parkas. No matter the circumstances, Opening Day is the single greatest day of the year.

"t's a party. It's a reunion. It's hope. It's nostalgia. It's the past. It's the future. It's everything. And this year, I might get nothing.

"I'm going to miss it. But I'll be there whenever they throw out that first pitch."

From left, Ryan Hickman from Houston, Greg Layson from LaSalle, Onatario, Blair Yaworsky from St. Albert, Alberta, and Mike Burling of Essex, Ontario, at a recent Tigers' opener.

So will Dan Dickerson, the radio voice of the Tigers since 2003.

He was on the air in Lakeland, Fla., on Thursday, March 12, calling the action between the Tigers and Braves when, just like that, MLB halted the season, starting with a two-week delay that has since been extended.

On Saturday at home in Clarkston, instead of prepping and researching for his opening call, he was walking his two dogs, Finn, a Golden Retriever, and Wally, a Chocolate Lab, for what seemed like the gazillionth time. He called a "simulated" inning of Thursday's opener (Miguel Cabrera homered! He's back!) and that lasted about 20 minutes, with a remarkable two hours of prep time (Jose Ramirez's batting stance needed a description!). He was admittedly exhausted. And probably a bit sad, too.

"I just love that air of anticipation that comes with every Opening Day," Dickerson said. "Especially at home in Detroit, there's just nothing quite like that feeling of Opening Day. It's just a celebration. It's a party. I love walking through the parking lots, in the early morning hours, and just seeing the smiles on everybody's faces.

"The joy in the air — and it doesn't even matter what last year was. On Opening Day, everything's possible.

"I'm a sports fan. I love all sports. But there's just nothing quite like the start of the baseball season."

Tigers radio play-by-play man Dan Dickerson after walking his two dogs Saturday.

All sports are trying to figure out when they'll be back, and when they are, what that will look like. There's the possibility the NBA and NHL will jump right into the playoffs, thus to keep their season from extending into August or September. As for baseball, there's talk of a 100-game season, 80-game season, heck, even a 40-game season with a round-robin playoff format. There's just so much unknown, that everything is on the table, and everything should be on the table, Dickerson said.

"Some baseball," said Dickerson, "is better than no baseball."

He'll get no argument from Tigers fans — yes, they're still out there, even in lean times — or the thousands of downtown workers who depend on the sports teams to make a living.

That includes a host of bartenders and wait staff, for whom Opening Day is their Xanadu.

Take Patrick Foody, 32, of Detroit. He works at Basement Burger Bar in Greektown, and usually could count on making between $500 and $700 on Tigers Opening Day.

This would have been his 13th Opening Day bartending.

"I'll miss the optimism of the fans thinking we can have a great season. I'll miss the players' and coaches' introductions," Foody said. "And, most of all, I'll miss the money."

There are thousands of downtown workers out of a job because of the sports shutdown, including many at Comerica Park and Little Caesars Arena. The Ilitches set up a $1-million fund for each venue to pay part-time workers, but that won't include food- and beverage-service employees who work for Delaware North, the $3-billion Buffalo, N.Y.-based company that said last week it can't afford to help most of its 55,000 employees who work at some 50 areans around the globe.

Delaware North did donate thousands of pounds of food from LCA and Comerica Park to Forgotten Harvest.

Mark Hensler, center, at a recent Opening Day.

Lost is the money spent every year by Mark Hensler, 38, of Westland.

He has gone to Tigers Opening Day every year since 2000, with his college roommates. They would tailgate near Cass and Elizabeth, starting around 9 a.m., and then usually hit Elwood, Bookies and Park Bar. They would finish the day at MGM Grand. He's part of a fan base that pumps an estimated $12 million into the downtown economy every Opening Day.

"It's a great tradition, and we don't care how bad the Tigers are," Hensler said. "You can't beat the atmosphere of downtown on Opening Day."

That's the case, whether the Tigers are good, as they were mostly from 2006-14, or bad, as they've been since, earning the No. 1 pick in the MLB Draft twice in the last three years.

This year was (is?) expected to be another down year, though there's an asterisk with that. This also was to be the year when Tigers fans got to see a glimpse of the future, with several blue-chip pitching prospects expected to debut in Detroit at some point in 2020.

Now, who knows what the timeline will be for the likes of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Tarik Skubal, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser and the like.

"I am not so much missing the Tigers 2020 team, as I am missing a window into their possible future with any young talent that might emerge," said Steve Butts, 47, of Lansing.

The Tigers won their first Opening Day, 14-13 over the Milwaukee Brewers, rallying with 10 runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to win April 24, 1901. They won their last Opening Day, 5-4 last April 4 against the Kansas City Royals, highlighted by an RBI double by Niko Goodrum, and a save by Shane Greene. Detroit actually has won 10 of its last 11 home openers.

Not that winning or losing is the point of Opening Day.

It's just that, there's finally baseball — the winter is over (technically), and spring has arrived. Opening Day, the NCAA Tournament and the Masters are sports' signal that spring has arrived. There will be no NCAA Tournament, and no Masters until probably the fall.

Shane Sellers, right, with his favorite Comerica Park usher, Clarence.

There still will be an Opening Day, though nobody has a clue when.

"I am going to miss going down to the ballpark. I’m going to miss giving a high-five to my usher Clarence in section 330 for the first time this year," said Shane Sellers, 17, a Chesterfield resident who is a student at Macomb L'Anse Creuse North, who's been getting by watching old Tigers games on YouTube, and playing MLB The Show 20. "I’m going to miss walking up the ramp to the upper deck and immediately getting the smell of the roasted almonds and the sausages on the grill.

"I’m going to miss the fans like me who have waited all winter just to walk into the ballpark for the first time.

"This week was the single greatest week in sports all year."

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

Detroit native Kenzie Smith, 36, in purple, now living in Southgate, and Jerry Cerpa, 51, of Kalamazoo walk around and take photos outside Comerica Park on Sunday.