The latest step in New York City’s road to COVID-19 recovery came on Opening Day of the 2021 MLB season at Yankee Stadium.
The gates opened on a rainy April 1 at the iconic ballpark, and fans were welcomed back inside for the first time since the American League Championship Series in October 2019. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season was completely played void of fans, with crowd sounds piped into the ballpark.
But on Opening Day of the 2021 season, with a maximum capacity of 20% of the 50,000-seat Stadium, the mood was as festive as the start of any normal baseball season. Droves of fans decked out in Yankee jerseys and caps began arriving outside the Bronx baseball field before 9 a.m., four hours ahead of the first pitch at 1 p.m.
The level of excitement could be felt in the chilly, rain-soaked air as groups raised their arms and yelled “Let’s go Yankees!” Upon, first glance it seemed as if very little time had passed since the last time a crowd had packed the area thanks to fans waiting on entry lines and young entrepreneurs selling plastic ponchos to arriving guests.
Despite all that which had stayed the same, vastly more had changed due to the pandemic.
In order to be admitted to the hotly anticipated opening day, ticket holders were required to either show proof that they had been vaccinated or display a negative COIVID-19 test performed in the last 72 hours. Not only that, but attendees were also required to roll up their sweaters and yank off their hoods for temperature checks.
While the line to the entranceways grew rather extensive at times, only a fraction of the stadium’s capacity was to be filled. Of the 54,250 seats, only 10,850 tickets were permitted to be sold.
Many of the attending fans were family members or close friends who had made it a tradition to show their support for their team at each and every opening game, like Karyn Oltremare and her son, Nicholis Qulik — who have been avid Yankee fans for decades.
Every year, they look forward to opening day and, in turn, celebrating a new season of baseball — however, last year put a damper on their tradition.
“We’ve been going every year on opening day since 1996. So, it’s 25 years, minus COVID last year when no fans could go into the stadium,” Qulik told amNewYork Metro.
Qulik drove 10 hours from Cincinnati to surprise his mother with tickets for the historic game, who was downtrodden since she believed the limited supply would make it near impossible to attend. This time-honored tradition is symbolic to their family. It was something Qulik would do with his father and mother, but after his father passed away, Oltremare made sure to keep up custom despite the new regulations.
“It’s absolutely worth it. It’s been 25 years and we were really depressed last year,” Oltremare said.
Qulik said that he knew it would be extremely difficult to purchase the tickets directly from the official Yankee store, so he happily paid for his seats through a third-party seller.
For both mother and son, the ability to continue their time-honored tradition together is more meaningful than they could simply put into words. “It’s something our family has celebrated since forever, so it’s great to be back and watch it in person instead of on the TV,” Qulik said.
For one couple, the historic day was made even more memorable after they became in engaged directly in front of the stadium. Vanessa Williams presented Megan Coombes with a ring from a cased shaped like a baseball complete with a homeplate. The elated pair grasped one another in a tender embrace and lovingly kissed while fellow fans continued to pour in behind them.
“We just got engaged right in front of Yankee Stadium, the best stadium in the whole word,” Coombes said laughing. “This is actually how we feel in love, over baseball watching the best of the best,” Coombes continued.
The couple trekked all the way from Seattle, Washington just to catch opening day of the Yankee Stadium, or that’s what thought before her girlfriend got on one knee to propose.
“She is the best thing that ever happened to me, outside of the Yankees,” Coombes joked, smiling ear to ear.
Essential workers also took the event as a much-needed respite from pandemic.
Randy Leibowitz is a doctor who has been on the front lines for over a year. During that time, one of the “normal” things he missed was watching his favorite team play in person.
“It’s been a full year since I have been able to come back here. I’ve been watching from afar for way too long and I had to come back the first day I could, rain or shine, or snow, or whatever could happen,” Leibowitz said, proudly holding up his vaccination card.
Leibowitiz bought his tickets on Stubhub to celebrate the slow return to normalcy. Although the horrors of the past year still stick with him, he says this momentous occasion and is a “beacon of light” abd being at Yankee Stadium is a real “We made it moment” for him.
“This is the first taste for me of normal life so hopefully we will get more people vaccinated and we will get back to the life we are comfortable living,” said Leibowitz, sharing that opening day represents a benchmark in moving forward out of the dark tunnel of COVID-19 and into the light.
Hordes of NYPD officers also swarmed the area and nearby train station to ensure that only the rain dampened the event.