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Orioles fans see return to Camden Yards as milestone in pandemic recovery: ‘It changed the rhythm of life’

She intended nothing more than a dose of ironic humor.

“Can you believe this is the only game we’re going to go to this year?” Katie Minton said to her husband as they watched her beloved Orioles on a spring-training afternoon last year in Florida. The Federal Hill resident typically walks to about 20 home games in a season.

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Little did Minton know the looming pandemic would shut down baseball the very next day and keep her away from Camden Yards for an entire year. COVID-19 robbed fans of people and rituals more precious than any game, but the absence of lazy summer evenings at the ballpark offered a constant reminder of how wrong everything else felt.

“Not having that last year, it really, it made the year feel different,” said Minton, 33. “Having them on TV, it just wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the biggest hardship of the pandemic. It wasn’t the saddest part of the pandemic. But it changed the rhythm of my life.”

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This helps explain why Thursday’s Orioles home opener will feel like a momentous step for Minton and a maximum of about 11,000 other fans who will return to the stands for the first time since Sept. 22, 2019. They’ll cheer their hearts out for Trey Mancini as he takes his first home at-bat since returning from colon cancer, and they’ll bask in shared hope that an opening sweep in Boston hinted at better baseball to come. They’ll reflect on what was lost in 2020 and what might be found in 2021.

Now that live baseball is back in Baltimore, perhaps a broader sense of normalcy is not far behind for fans, surrounding business owners and the Orioles themselves.

“It definitely feels like a milestone for me,” said Minton, who will attend with her young sister and fellow Orioles die-hard, Kyla. “I haven’t really done much at all in the last year — working from home, not going out to eat, not seeing friends and family around the holidays. So having this moment, it’s going to mark the return to something more like normal life.”

As fans spill onto Eutaw Street, they’ll glimpse the familiar green of the field and sniff the familiar smoke from Boog’s Barbecue, but they’ll also notice many differences. No casual gatherings around the picnic tables in left field, no drinks at the rooftop bar in center, no kids bouncing around inflatable play areas. With the parking lot opening later, they’ll miss batting practice. Much of the carnival atmosphere will be gone; the experience will be pared to its essence: Find your seat and watch a ballgame.

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“I think some of our anxiety may be around the fact that the experience at Oriole Park will feel different,” said Greg Bader, the Orioles’ senior vice president of administration and experience. “Things we’ve encouraged fans to do for many years, we’re not necessarily encouraging them to do to start the 2021 season. … It’s just going to look a little different. It will still be Camden Yards. It will still be beautiful.”

Club officials spent much of the offseason planning for a world in which fans would be allowed back with unfamiliar restrictions. When Gov. Larry Hogan gave his official nod in early March, they were ready.

“There was a lot of effort, for many months, put into this in the hopes that we would be open to any fans at all,” Bader said. “And once we did find out, it was energizing and a relief that we were going to be able to take that next step.”

Dr. Larry Chang, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said the Orioles have acted prudently by grouping fans into pods of two, four or six and by keeping the crowd well below the state-mandated limit of half capacity.

“As a general principle, I think it’s OK to have baseball games with limited capacity, with the safety precautions the Orioles seem to be putting in place,” Chang said.

Given the accelerating pace of vaccination in Maryland, he’s optimistic we might see more normal baseball watching conditions by late summer, but he cautioned that fans should still consider their individual risks.

“When you hear you’re diagnosed with cancer, like I’ve told you guys, baseball was the last thing on my mind,” Mancini said.

“If you’re a fully vaccinated pod, you should really have almost no concerns about going to an Orioles game,” Chang said. “But some pods are going to be mixed. Some people might want to consider, ‘Hey, maybe I can just hold off for one month and send the vaccinated crowd to see these first games.’”

For their part, the Orioles plan to promote vaccination daily. Bader said the seating chart, re-imagined to allow for socially distanced pods, is in place for April and May but could be modified to allow larger crowds as early as June.

Given the limited availability of tickets for the opener, which were distributed almost entirely to holders of Birdland season plans, prices on the secondary market initially soared to an average of more than $650 a seat, according to the ticketing app Gametime. As more fans received their tickets, prices dropped as low as $53 for a single seat at the beginning of this week.

Several fans who plan to attend Thursday’s opener said they considered the health risks before accepting tickets.

“My first thought was wondering if it was going to be safe and if I was going to want to go,” said Minton, who’s vaccinated. “I really had to think it through.”

Meanwhile, the Orioles and surrounding business owners are counting on the crowds to kick off a slow recovery from the economic woes of 2020. The club, which depends heavily on ticket and concessions revenues, laid off or furloughed 46 employees in October.

“It helps get things going again,” Bader said. “It gets people used to coming to the park again. But from a financial standpoint, this is going to be more than just this year that it takes to recover from last year.”

Pickles Pub co-owner Eric Cotton moves a table outside as preparations are made for the Baltimore Orioles' Opening Day. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Pickles Pub co-owner Eric Cotton moves a table outside as preparations are made for the Baltimore Orioles' Opening Day. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

No neighboring business is more associated with the game-day experience than Pickles Pub, where fans gather to eat and drink before first pitch. “I don’t even think you can quantify it,” co-owner Tom Leonard said of the expected boost from returning crowds.

Last summer was eerie as staffers heard the familiar home-run horn from across the street without any crowd noise. Leonard said he and his partner dug into their savings to keep the pub afloat and would need several good years to recover, a process they expect to begin in earnest when the doors open at 8 a.m. Thursday.

“I think it’s just kind of relief; everyone’s very pensive about it,” Leonard said. “I think the first cathartic moments happened on the first few weekends when the weather was nice. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re slowly coming back.’”

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Most Orioles employees also stayed away from the ballpark last season. Players and coaches were among the few people in the building, and they’re eager to come back to a more familiar atmosphere.

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“Big time,” Orioles infielder Pat Valaika said. “That aspect, that extra energy, adrenaline even, butterflies. With fans in the stands, there’s that extra level of, not pressure, but it’s more fun. You hear screaming fans; you hear opposing fans trying to get in your head. There was none of that last year.”

Until last year, Marc Tilles had been to every Orioles home opener since 1975. He considers it a second New Year’s Day on his calendar.

“I missed that celebration of spring, even though it’s usually 47 degrees and windy on Opening Day,” the 57-year-old Pikesville resident said with a laugh. As last summer carried on, Tilles’ ache deepened. He missed the greetings from familiar ushers, the conversations over strategy with his section mates. He won’t be surprised if his emotions swell Thursday when he thinks back over the last year.

“Let’s be honest, the last year, my entertainment has been going to a food store and maybe sitting outside at a restaurant,” he said. “You can’t go to the movies. You can’t go to a Broadway show. So I’m looking forward to being out, doing something fun around other people. I’m not going to feel afraid. I’m not.”

Home opener

RED SOX@ORIOLES

Thursday, 3:05 p.m.

TV: MASN Radio: 105.7 FM

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