May 5—With 610 days having passed since the Toledo Mud Hens last played a baseball game at Fifth Third Field, fans' optimism did not wait for Matt Manning's first pitch at 6:41 p.m.
On Tuesday, as fans in ballcaps and Toledo T-shirts meandered downtown in anticipation of Opening Day, there was no mistaking the excitement that extended to the field level, even before fans officially had entered the stadium.
During player warmups, some three hours before the gates' scheduled opening, a group walked down Monroe Street when a male voice called out: "This is the year!"
The comment drew a few chuckles from a group of Mud Hens playing long toss along the third-base line, and it was far from the only sight of happy people in and around the ballpark ahead of the Hens' return.
The circumstances were much like the weather forecast: Far from perfect, but certainly better than the alternative. The entire 2020 minor-league season was wiped out by the coronavirus pandemic, and while the scene for Opening Day 2021 was not the same scale as previous years, it was nonetheless a rite of spring in downtown Toledo.
Joe Marck, a real estate developer who lives downtown, said it would be a "sacrilege" for him to miss Opening Day, and said one could feel a sense of excitement Tuesday after more than a full year with no Hens games.
"It's been extremely positive, and it was from 10 o'clock this morning when people started showing up with tents to set everything up," Mr. Marck said. "There was so much excitement with people just wanting to be out and doing this again."
The first home game at Fifth Third field is a spectacle unlike any game the rest of the season, with tailgaters dotted throughout parking lots, downtown businesses participating in the festivities, and music emanating from bars and restaurants as people walk the streets.
Josh Bock and Arika Perales, who shopped Tuesday for Hens gear at the Swamp Shop, were two of many Toledoans who make Opening Day a fixture each year.
"We come down here every year, and it's like an annual thing for us," Mr. Bock said.
"We have kids and never really get to get out anymore, so we plan every year for this to come downtown and enjoy the atmosphere," Ms. Perales added. "Obviously, this year is a little different."
The signs that have become commonplace at all public spaces during the pandemic were everywhere at Fifth Third Field, with hand sanitizer stations throughout the concourse and outside every suite, arrows directing foot traffic, reminders about wearing masks, and instructions to enjoy drinks at assigned seats, not on the drink rails.
But the stadium also felt, in many ways, just like it always has — there was a real baseball game to be played, with hustle and bustle taking place inside before the gates opened.
Hours before the game, concessions workers readied their stations for the upcoming rush of fans — albeit a reduced crowd — while the grounds crew hosed the infield, and music from the video board carried throughout the concourse.
While the Detroit Tigers' taxi squad has used the stadium throughout the past year, Tuesday was an entirely different scene.
This was a bona fide Mud Hens game, and because of it, several thousand people downtown and enjoying themselves.
"It's obviously the baseball game, but it's not even the baseball game — it's the opportunity for people to be out and be having fun," Mr. Marck said. "The weather is nice and people have reason to be excited."
One man wearing sunglasses and a navy blue 'T' hat was walking down Huron Street holding a DORA cup in each hand and agreed to be interviewed on two conditions: One, that a reporter hold one of his drinks so that he could check his phone, and two, that he remain anonymous.
The anonymity, he promised, was for a very good reason.
"I took off work for this," he said, breaking into a wide grin. "I mean, [it's] Opening Day. How can you work on Opening Day?"
First Published May 4, 2021, 7:05pm