TAMPA — “Dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig!”
So proclaimed one boisterous Yankees fan Sunday afternoon, here at George M. Steinbrenner Field, as Miguel Andujar tried to leg out an infield single on a grounder to Blue Jays third baseman Cavan Biggio. Seventeen consecutive emissions, by The Post’s count, of “Dig!”
Andujar fell short, yet the moment spoke volumes, beyond the actual speaking, of what we missed last year. No 2020 piped-in crowd noise at a 2020 empty ballpark could’ve produced that simultaneously ephemeral and eternal 2021 moment.
Welcome back, fans. You were missed more than you’ll ever know.
“When you first run out there, the crowd, the energy, the roar, hearing them kind of yelling certain things, good things, bad things, you feed off of that,” Aaron Judge said after the Yankees lost their Grapefruit League opener, 6-4 to the Blue Jays, in front of a paying, socially distanced crowd of 2,637. “So it was pretty exciting finally having them back.”
“It’s been too long,” Aaron Boone added.
On March 12, 2020, the Yankees faced the Nationals at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on the other side of the state, a packed house bearing witness. While the starters were still in the game, home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez said to Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka, “Oh yeah, they’re about to shut this thing down.” That marked the last time anyone besides family members, Yankees employees or the media had seen the Yankees play in person until Sunday.
With capacity limited out of respect for the novel coronavirus (this place holds slightly more than 11,000) there hardly stood a flood of customers when gates opened at 11 a.m. By 11:04, the entrance at the stadium’s front was empty. The setting proved tranquil enough that, with the media dining room closed, longtime Blue Jays broadcaster (and former Blue Jays, Royals and Brewers catcher) Buck Martinez ate his lunch at a tabletop on the crowd level largely unnoticed; only a gentleman wearing a Blue Jays jersey approached Martinez to say hello.
A recording by Yankees public-address announcer Paul Olden played outside the ballpark, alerting fans to rules about mask-wearing and social distancing. Folks wore masks as they departed their cars and walked to their seats, then largely unmasked while seated, then masked up again when mixing among the crowds, such as they were. Jim Loughlin, who grew up a Yankees fan in Milford, Conn., and now lives in Venice, about a 90-minute drive south of here, noted that the relative emptiness made it easier to maneuver.
Loughlin, who attended the game with his longtime pal Michael “Motown” LaGaipa (originally from Bridgeport, Conn., and now also in Venice), said this was the first game of any kind he had attended since the shutdown, although he did go to the “NFL Experience” in Tampa prior to the Super Bowl.
“What’s better than this?” Loughlin asked rhetorically, acknowledging the nearby palm trees and the first-pitch temperature of 82 degrees. “We’re calling people in Connecticut on the way up. They’ve got a foot of snow, and they’re not doing anything.”
Judge and his Blue Jays counterpart Josh Palacios both threw balls to young fans behind right field as they finished their between-inning warm-ups; Judge noted that he didn’t play catch with such folks as he normally would for sanitary reasons.
“In the past, I could play catch with them, kind of get up around the wall with them, ask them questions, sign autographs,” Judge said. “Gotta be old school and just put on a show for the fans.”
The buzz couldn’t compare to that at last year’s World Series, when 25 percent of Globe Life Park roared as the Dodgers and Rays faced off at the neutral location. And you wouldn’t expect that. We’re at the start of the season, not the finish.
The exhibition opener is about hope and promise, and not just for the Yankees this year. It was, no apologies for the corniness, for all of us. Like Andujar, we’ll keep digging until we get out of this safely.