(NewsNation Now) — From Comerica Park to Coors Field to the Coliseum, Major League Baseball is set to roll out a big welcome mat Thursday.
Ballparks will again be buzzing with real fans, rather than pumped-in crowd noise, as Fernando Tatis Jr., Randy Arozarena, Juan Soto, Mookie Betts and MVPs José Abreu and Freddie Freeman step to the plate on opening day.
All 30 teams are scheduled to be in action, with Gerrit Cole set to throw the first pitch of the season against Toronto at Yankee Stadium. Clayton Kershaw starts for the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers at Colorado, AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber goes for Cleveland at Detroit, San Diego newcomer Yu Darvish takes on Arizona and the matchup in Washington is max effort: Jacob deGrom of the Mets vs. Max Scherzer of the Nats, the pair combining to win five Cy Young trophies.
A year after no fans were allowed during the virus-shortened 60-game season, every stadium is open, in varying degrees as teams adhere to coronavirus protocols.
“Going from zero to anything was going to be fun, especially for the players,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said during spring training.
When Cole throws the first pitch of the season — weather permitting — nearly 11,000 people could be at Yankee Stadium. Healthcare workers will celebrated, and everyone will sit in socially distanced seats and wear masks, inside a park that will continue to operate as a mass coronavirus vaccination site.
Far from normal. No longer will “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” strangely echo around empty ballparks during the seventh-inning stretch.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be, I think,” said Bumgarner, ready to start for the Arizona Diamondbacks against Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and the San Diego Padres.
“That’s what we’re doing. It’s an entertainment business. We’re all playing a game and competing and everyone’s got their team they pull for or just likes watching the game in general,” he said.
Missing opening day, however, will be five players on the Washington Nationals. One of them tested positive for the virus this week — remember, last year Nats star Juan Soto had the virus and missed the opener.
“Everybody across the game — we had seen so few positive cases across spring training as a whole,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “It just shows you how quickly that can turn. It can turn on a dime. We have to face it, and we have to overcome it.”
Crowd sizes will vary around the majors.
At Fenway Park, where Xander Bogaerts and the Boston Red Sox host Baltimore, 12% of capacity will be allowed. At Globe Life Field in Texas, where the Rangers open Monday, a full 100% will be permitted.
The Rangers didn’t have any fans in their $1.2 billion palace that opened last year during the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. But 11,000 spectators were inside the Arlington, Texas, park when Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Corey Seager and the Los Angeles Dodgers beat Tampa Bay in MLB’s first neutral-site World Series.
Boosted by signing NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, the pitching-rich Dodgers start in Colorado, trying to become the first repeat champions since the New York Yankees in 1998-2000.
Kershaw gets the opener against the Rockies, while Bauer goes in the second game.
“I’m pumped up for it. Especially pumped up to get back in front of the LA fans for my first home start,” Bauer said.
“This is going to be cool, putting on the Dodger uniform, playing with this group of guys. I’m really pumped up that baseball is back, especially now that we get to have fans in the stands,” he said.
How many will actually be in the box seats and bleachers on April Fools’ Day might depend on the weather.
Rain is forecast early in the day for Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Same in Washington, too, where a marquee matchup is waiting at Nationals Park: Two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom of the Mets faces Scherzer, a three-time Cy champ.
Temperatures are supposed to be in the 30s with gusty winds at Wrigley Field when Kris Bryant and the Chicago Cubs host Pittsburgh. Also in the low 30s in Detroit, where Cleveland ace Shane Bieber faces the Tigers, and chilly in Cincinnati, where the Reds take on St. Louis newcomer Nolan Arenado.
All reporting by Ben Walker, AP Sports Writer. The Associated Press contributed to this report.