The smell of popcorn drifted out to the parking lot.
Baseballs sprung off wooden bats with a crack and drifted through the late-afternoon spring air.
By 6:37 p.m., when right-hander Spenser Watkins delivered a first-pitch, 92-mph fastball before a buzzing crowd, Harbor Park seemed almost … well, normal.
As expected, more than 4,700 spectators — 38% of capacity — watched Tuesday as the Norfolk Tides returned to action at their home field for the first time since Sept. 2, 2020, to face the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
More than 600 baseball-less days had passed at the 28-year-old venue, the result of a grueling lockdown of the minor leagues due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As fans, most of them voluntarily wearing face coverings, made their way through the stadium’s turnstiles and concourse, Tides GM Joe Gregory liked what he saw.
A game-time temperature of 72 degrees and a light breeze off the Elizabeth River made the night almost idyllic, though the game itself hadn’t ended by press time for this edition.
“I definitely missed it,” Gregory said as he stood at a concourse railing above the bustling main entrance. “You almost forget what it feels like to have a sunny day and fans coming in the ballpark. It’s nice to see thousands of smiling faces.”
Though Harbor Park head groundskeeper Kenny Magner maintained the playing surface throughout the pandemic, Tuesday marked the first time he and his skeleton crew had dressed the field for public view since two Labor Days and five iterations of the iPhone ago.
Magner and his assistant, Justin Hall, spent Tuesday afternoon watering the infield dirt, lining the field and getting equipment into place for batting practice.
Magner had meticulously mowed diagonal lines into the emerald outfield grass, intersecting them in center field to form a diamond pattern that ran from the infield’s edge to the batter’s eye.
“I hope the fans enjoy what they see,” Magner said moments after setting up screens for BP. “I did my best.
“Whatever happens, I’m just glad to get things going.”
Hall left the Tides’ staff in June 2020 to work as a grounds crew assistant for the Tennessee Titans.
Hall, who rejoined Magner’s staff in April, remembers an early-season Titans game with no fans in the stands.
“It was weird,” Hall said. “Kind of eerie, really. So getting the fans back in here is going to be huge.”
Gregory couldn’t agree more. With the 2020 season canceled and no revenue coming in, the Tides trimmed their full-time front-office staff from 18 to eight last June.
Some of the employees have since returned, but it has been a difficult 20 months by any measure.
Only recently have CDC recommendations and state and city restrictions made it possible for fans to return to Harbor Park’s stands in any capacity.
If health trends continue to be positive, Gregory hopes the ballpark can be at full capacity for the Tides’ May 29 game against Charlotte.
On Tuesday afternoon, the ballpark’s full-time and seasonal employees hustled around the concourse as they prepared it for patrons at last.
A vendor rolled a cart stacked with cases of beer. Another stocked a bright cotton candy tree.
Untouched bins of rainbow gelato awaited scooping. A worker emptied a box of fresh lemons onto a counter at the lemonade stand on the third-base side as the Jumbo Shrimp took BP with a TV news chopper hovering overhead.
By 5:40 p.m., 10 minutes after the gates opened, the line to enter the team store was two dozen people deep. They could all smell the peppers and onions being cooked on a nearby cheesesteak grill.
“It’s like riding a bike,” Gregory said, smiling as he surveyed the concourse.
“Everyone seems to be in a good mood. I’d like to think they’re respecting most of the social distancing. It gives me hope that when we get to ease the restrictions more, we’ll see some bigger crowds this season.”
As Gregory spoke, fans had their phones scanned for admission as they filed through the turnstiles. Excitedly, they grabbed their concessions of choice and found their seats.
It was nothing short of normal.
David Hall, firstname.lastname@example.org