Hernández: Angels opener is a welcome return back for the fans

Navigating the concourses of baseball stadiums is typically an unpleasant experience, comparable in pain to walking across Disneyland or a crowded train station.

It’s suffocating, people everywhere, many of them standing as they contemplate whether to approach one of the never-ending line of traps designed to separate them from their money.

Which made opening day at Angel Stadium a pleasant surprise.

What was this?


The season-opening game on Thursday between the Angels and Chicago White Sox didn’t feel as much an incremental step in the direction of normalcy as much as it did a visit to the past.

Or how I imagine what it was like before billion-dollar franchise valuations, when something like Nolan Ryan’s first game here attracted a little more than 5,000 fans.

Most of the food stands were closed. The lines outside the team stores were relatively short. With COVID-19 protocols limiting attendance to 13,207 fans in a stadium that holds more than 45,000, many groups had entire rows to themselves.

Scenes like this at the since-demolished L.A. Sports Arena are why some people were Clippers fans even when Donald Sterling owned the team.

“Parking’s easy,” joked a fan in a red Angels polo shirt.

The downside, of course, was the absence of buzz.

“It certainly doesn’t have the party atmosphere that opening days normally have,” said the fan, who turned out to be the mayor of Chino Hills, Brian Johsz.

More important than the ambience was whom he was with, his 11-year-old son Stephen and Stephen’s paternal and maternal grandfathers.

Traditions like this were resumed everywhere.

Michelle Theile, 23, was there with Albert Ramirez, 61. Theile’s mother and Ramirez’s wife are friends. Ramirez took Theile to her first game when she was 5.

Theile reminded Ramirez of how he once gifted her a Chone Figgins jersey.

“I found it today,” she told him.

“Did you really?” Ramirez replied.

Looking around the space in front of the stadium’s Home Plate Gate, Theile and Ramirez noticed what Johsz did, how the area wasn’t as congested as it was for previous opening days.

There were some familiar sights.

Mark Gubicza and Patrick O’Neal hosted Bally Sports West’s pre- and post-game shows from the plaza. Local news crews were nearby.

“Hopefully, we can have a maskless World Series,” Theile said.

Major League Baseball played a shortened season and crowned a champion last year. So did the NBA, which completed its underway season. The NFL played an entire season and only two rounds remain in the NCAA basketball tournament.

But a warning that nothing is guaranteed came from the other side of the country on Thursday, when at least three Washington Nationals tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in a cancellation of their opener against the New York Mets.

The episode was a reminder of how baseball was fortunate that Justin Turner wasn’t found to have COVID-19 until the final game of the World Series. What would have happened if he had tested positive earlier in the series?

In retrospect, the entire season was an ordeal to complete, with 40 games postponed because of outbreaks among players.

The Angels have taken precautions.

In a pregame video conference, Maddon said he believed more than 85% of Angels player and field personnel are vaccinated, which would make them exempt from some league-imposed COVID-19 restrictions.

Maddon made it a point to mention protocol manager Rick Smith and trainer Adam Nevala by name.

“Tribute to the medical staff,” Maddon said. “Don’t point any other direction. I’m not responsible for that. This is a situation where people that normally don’t get a lot of credit deserve it. They’ve been really good all through the offseason. They’ve been great. I’ve really been impressed with their explanation and how consistent they’ve been. That’s a big part of all this too, for me, is consistency in the message.

“When the message becomes convoluted, that’s where you lose followers. Our guys have been really clear and consistent in the message.”

The return of fans was a reward for the players, with Albert Pujols reflecting on how 10 games into the fan-less 2020 season, he said to himself, “Man, this is how we’re going to play for two months.”

Pujols added, “It’s great to be able to have fans in the stands today.”

Back were some of the sounds of the game. When Justin Upton broke up White Sox starter Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter and shutout with a fourth-inning single, many of the fans stood to applaud.

There weren’t enough of them for this to feel like a normal opening day, but that wasn’t a problem. In some ways, it was better this way.