Baseball teams welcome back fans to stands
By Steve Adams
In one of the surest signs that spring has sprung, professional baseball is back. The Major League Baseball season began in early April, following last year’s very abbreviated 60-game season, and minor league teams are set to soon return to the field after Major League Baseball canceled all affiliated minor league seasons in 2020 due to the pandemic.
What’s more, consistently-rising vaccine numbers mean that Maryland’s many professional teams—the Baltimore Orioles, Bowie Baysox, Aberdeen IronBirds, Delmarva Shorebirds, Frederick Keys, Hagerstown Suns, and Southern Maryland Blue Crabs — are all welcoming fans back into the stands this year, although at reduced capacities.
And while things might look a bit different inside each of these ballparks this spring and summer, there’s no hiding how happy teams and players are to have fans back in the stands – nor, of course, how happy fans are to be able to again watch America’s pastime from them.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the 2021 game-day experience at three of our favorite regional teams’ ballparks.
The O’s kicked off their season April 2 and played their home opener on April 8 in front of 10,150 fans, reflecting a 25 percent capacity limit on attendance that will be maintained until further notice. Although the O’s lost the game and fans’ cheers may have been a bit muffled by the mandatory face masks they wore, their presence was clearly appreciated.
As John Angelos, Orioles Chairman and CEO, told CBM Bay Weekly, “The long-awaited return of fans is the result of successful nationwide and organizational efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, increase vaccination access for millions of Americans, and strengthen our economy by bringing employees back to work. Just as we did in 2020, the Orioles will remain vigilant in our efforts and will continue to consult medical experts every step of the way as we invite fans back to Oriole Park at Camden Yards to enjoy another successful baseball season.”
The feeling on the field was powerful as well.
“It was great to hear the fans back at Camden Yards today and for our players to play in front of them again,” Manager Brandon Hyde said in a press conference following the home opener. “It definitely raises the intensity of the game, and our players fed off the energy and the emotion.”
The sentiment was shared by all of the O’s, but perhaps none more so than Trey Mancini, who missed the entire 2020 season after being diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer and undergoing surgery to remove a tumor last April.
“We have the best fans in baseball,” said Mancini. “No matter what, they love us and that showed today. Even at 25 percent capacity, it felt like a full stadium. I have goosebumps thinking about it.”
Indeed, while attendance limits mean that fans will produce a lower decibel of crowd noise and a far less eye-catching wave than in normal years, they’ll still enjoy everything that makes a trip to Camden Yards a great experience.
“We are all trying to return to our regular daily lives that we experienced pre-COVID-19, and coming to the ballpark to celebrate America’s favorite pastime is a safe and enjoyable way to begin the return to normalcy,” Jennifer Grondahl, Orioles Sr. Vice President of Communications & Community Development, told Bay Weekly. “Although we have limited capacity at this time, we still have many elements that fans know and love such as favorite ballpark food items, The Bird revving up the crowd, the Hot Dog Race and Crab Shuffle, and of course cheering on your favorite Oriole players, from the return of Trey Mancini to our hometown star Bruce Zimmerman. Baseball is a game that can be enjoyed by families and fans of all ages.”
As these cherished traditions return, Grondahl says that fans can also look forward to two new dining options, Charm City Diner and Vida Taco Bar, as well as The Bird’s Nest, a new experience offering them the opportunity to take a photo with the Oriole Bird on the Center Field Roof Deck, with all proceeds going to the Orioles Charitable Foundation.
And the pandemic won’t stop the ever-popular fan giveaways, so you can still expect to score everything from Mother’s Day scarves to classic floppy hats and even a water bottle featuring Baltimore’s clean-water ambassador, Mr. Trash Wheel.
Whether it’s one of these games or others, two fans who’ll certainly enjoy being able to again sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in person this summer are Stephen Reigle of Severn, and his daughter, McKinley.
A lifelong Orioles fan, Reigle says that attending games is a family tradition that he and McKinley, whose softball team he coaches, definitely missed in 2020 and are very happy to be able to resume in 2021.
“Our family went to lots of O’s games at the old Memorial Stadium when I was growing up,” says Reigle. “My dad would always get hot peanuts from an old farmers market near his work at Fort Meade, and even though we always sat in the cheap seats I absolutely loved it. I still remember seeing Brooks Robinson’s last game, when I was 4, and going to Eddie Murray’s very first game, too. And cars were all parked bumper to bumper in those days, so I also remember never leaving early and having some very late summer nights.”
Reigle continues the tradition with his daughter, “I love the fact that my daughter loves going to games with me now, and we missed it big time last year. I love the atmosphere, the crowd cheering, and more than anything seeing the joy in her face. It feels awesome to be able to watch the O’s live and in person together again and keep our family tradition alive.”
But Camden Yards isn’t the only place the Reigles will be going to watch some high-quality ball this spring and summer.
Like many baseball-loving Marylanders, the Reigles will also head to Prince George’s Stadium to watch some of the 60 home games that will be played there by the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles’ Class AA Minor League Baseball affiliate.
The Baysox open their 29th season at home on May 11 with health- and safety-promoting policies and procedures similar to those of the O’s in effect: a 25 to 30 percent capacity limit, socially-distanced seating, mandatory mask-wearing for all fans ages 3 and up, and online ticket purchases and cashless in-stadium purchases encouraged.
The team is happy to be back home.
“We have waited a long time to be able to announce that baseball will be back, and we can’t wait to welcome fans back to Prince George’s Stadium soon,” said Baysox General Manager Brian Shallcross upon the release of the 2021 schedule.
“We’re incredibly excited to be able to get back to doing what we do: hosting baseball games and welcoming fans and families back to the ballpark after not having a game since September 15, 2019,” Assistant General Manager Phil Wrye told Bay Weekly. “We’ll be continuing to put on a great show for fans all summer, and we’ll still be offering everything that makes attending a Baysox game great: affordable tickets, an amazing outdoor setting, and the chance to see top prospects play hard and work their way up to the Major Leagues. And last but not least, free parking!”
Indeed, every game offers the chance to watch a player who could be wearing an Orioles jersey tomorrow, and perhaps for years after. Just a few of the recognizable Baysox who made the quick trip to Camden Yards are Harold Baines, Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado.
Wrye reports that fans can also look forward to visiting The Tackle Box, a new team store selling apparel, hats, and souvenirs, and “Woof Wednesdays,” when fans will be able to bring their leashed dog to the game for free. Every home game will feature a giveaway or post-game fireworks show, with the team releasing tickets and the promotional event schedule week-by-week throughout the season.
Further south, baseball fans will also again be able to enjoy watching the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, play 60 homes games at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf.
“It feels incredible to have fans coming back into the stadium,” Media Relations Manager and Broadcaster Andrew Bandstra told Bay Weekly. “Fans are everything in minor league baseball, and to go so long without our fans in the stands is devastating … Heading into any off-season is sad, knowing that fans won’t return until spring. Never could we have imagined an 18-month break, so that adds to our excitement to bring live baseball with fans in the stands back to Southern Maryland.”
Bandstra reports that while seating will be limited to 50 percent capacity, or 3,000 fans, and all will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing inside the stadium, the game day experience will be as good as always.
“Our mission has always been using baseball to bring our community a much-needed distraction and a welcome break from the monotony of everyday life, and baseball is needed more now than ever in that regard,” says Bandstra. “We will bring the same energy and provide the same fun-loving environment that makes going to every Blue Crabs game a great experience—one where you can have a hot dog, have a laugh, and be entertained while watching a winning team that will be in contention for an Atlantic League Championship.”
For fans seeking a little extra motivation to attend, Bandstra promises that the revamped promotional schedule won’t disappoint. He is especially excited about the Wings Wars Series–in which the Blue Crabs will rebrand as the Southern Maryland Blue Cheeses during the first Thursday home game of each month, offer tickets for bottomless wings and beer from local restaurants, and ask attendees to rate the wings in order to crown Southern Maryland’s King of Wings at the end of the season. The Healthcare Heroes Series will honor a Southern Maryland medical professional for his or her sacrifices during COVID-19 at each Saturday home game.
Whether he makes it to a Wing Wars night or not, Paul Rudzinski of Churchton says that he’s definitely glad to have the Blue Crabs back and looks forward to attending at least a few of their home games with at least one of his two teenage sons.
“It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s always different,” says Rudzinski. “Plus, going to baseball games is just a part of summer.”
This summer, Maryland baseball fans are finally feeling safe at home plate again.