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As Justin Turner and Max Muncy walked onto the field at Camelback Ranch, down the left-field line to the Dodgers’ dugout with equipment bags hanging from their shoulders, people in the stands gathered from a distance to welcome them. The fans screamed the infielders’ names and cheered them on. Turner and Muncy waved. It was an exchange as old as professional sports.
And yet, after a year mostly without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was refreshing. On Monday, 2,341 people attended the Dodgers’ Cactus League home opener. Thirty minutes away, the Angels announced a crowd of 1,864 for their first home game this spring.
The Dodgers, who played in front of fans only in the final postseason rounds last year, welcome the change.
“It was a huge difference in Texas when there was 10,000 people there,” Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger said of last October. “It felt like 40 [thousand]. So definitely won't take that for granted ever again, playing in front of people."
A season without fans, he said, "kind of sucked.”
Both ballparks made changes to accommodate the limited crowds. White squares were painted onto the outfield grass, keeping pods of fans separated on the berm. Most infield seats were zip-tied shut to ensure spectators remained spread out. Plastic shields lined the front of concession stands and communal tables were removed from traditional concourse seating areas. Six- or 12-feet buffer zones were created around the dugouts and bullpen areas.
The precautions are expected to last through the spring. Tailgating is prohibited. Autographs are banned.
Everyone older than 2 is required to wear masks except when eating or drinking. Gaiters, bandanas and masks with valves aren’t accepted.
At Camelback Ranch, bags, including purses, aren’t permitted except for medical purposes and manufactured diaper bags accompanied by an infant. No outside food or drink is permitted besides one unopened water bottle — one liter or smaller — per person. One of the two team stores is open. All transactions in the ballpark are cashless. Every other urinal and sink in bathrooms is blocked off to ensure social distancing.
The opening games also were notably different. Both were shortened. The Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies played six innings. The Angels and Chicago White Sox lasted five.
The lengths were agreed upon by both teams before the games — a rule introduced this spring to help teams better manage exhibition schedules amid the pandemic — and communicated to ticket-holders via email and social media messaging before the games.
Could fans still enjoy the games even with all the enhanced safety measures?
“Oh, hell yeah,” Angels fan John Sampson said. “Absolutely. After the lockdown, being confined, not being able to go nowhere, it’s well worth it.”
Angels manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday the return of fans has been a welcome development.
“It just indicates how important they are to our industry, to the game,” Maddon said. “Even with a smattering, I don't even know how many were there yesterday, but the vibe was entirely different. We all got a little ham in us. Once you get the folks in the stands, it stirs something within that doesn't get stirred without them being there.”
Maddon reiterated the importance of finalizing spring game lengths — which can be as short as five innings until March 13, and as short as seven innings thereafter — as early as possible now that fans are allowed.
“When we first started all this, it was almost presented like it was gonna be a gentlemen's agreement between managers, but there's a lot more people involved, and of course the fans are too,” Maddon said. “So I think it's incumbent upon us to get that message out there and as quickly as we possibly can.”
While fans are allowed at games, they can't roam the backfields during workouts as in previous years. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noted the difference at the beginning of camp. The games have provided more normalcy even if fewer fans are wandering the concourse.
“As excited as I am, I’m sure the fans are a million times more excited to be able to get back out and watch the game they love and see us get back to work,” Turner said. “Hopefully as the season progresses, we can get more and more fans in.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.