The world’s oldest continually operating baseball grounds played host to a familiar sight on Friday as more than 1,000 fans regained a sense of normalcy.
The London Majors kicked off their 2021 season with a sold-out home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Minus an exhibition game against the Guelph Royals last summer, Friday night marked the Majors’ first turn at bat since the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of live local sporting events in the Forest City.
Under Step 2 of Ontario’s reopening, which allows for outdoor sporting events to go ahead at 25 per cent capacity, just over 1,000 fans were allowed to attend Labatt Park.
Cleveland Brownlee, who served as the Majors’ designated hitter on Friday, wanted the game to bring a sign that the pandemic is nearing its end.
Brownlee said Friday’s home opener ranked very high in his more than decade-long tenure with the team.
“One of the biggest things is my son, being of age now, able to come out here and see me play,” Brownlee said.
“Coming off a season we couldn’t play and we get the chance to show London that we’re here for them… I’m just ready.”
Majors’ owner and president Scott Dart said a lot went into getting fans in the stands for Friday’s home opener, including hoping for good weather amid a week filled with heat alerts followed by rain.
“It was a little bit scary this afternoon though when it started to drizzle a little bit… we’ll just say that it was just watering the grass, making it a little bit fresh. Today is perfect,” Dart said.
On top of baseball-permitting weather, Friday brought another sense of relief in the form of a provincial announcement, with Ontario set to move into Step 3 of its reopening plan earlier than expected.
“There’s still a couple other components that we’re kind of waiting to hear how that’s going to go with the distancing aspect because that could still hinder the capacity numbers, but the City of London has been fantastic for us to work with,” Dart said.
Ray Chowan considered himself lucky to be able to snatch up tickets before they sold out within four days.
“We’ve been watching for it, looking for it, wondering how it’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen,” said Chowan, who arrived to the game with Mary Chowan.
“Doesn’t seem like two years since we’ve been here, but it is.”
“It’s nice to get out,” said Carolyn Beckett, another Majors fan who made sure to buy tickets right away.
“One of the players, he works with me, Keith Kandel, so I come out to support him.”
“It feels abnormal now because we’ve been away from it for so long, but I love sports so I was excited to come and watch,” said Theo Morrison ahead of his second-ever Majors game.
“There’s 1,100 people, usually there isn’t even this many people on a regular Friday night, so it feels like it’s going to be a fun time.”
On top of seeing live sports back in London, James Draper said he was looking forward to taking in an atmosphere that’s been absent for more than a year.
“Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the score, it’s mostly about being with friends and having a good time, but of course we want the Majors to win,” Draper said. “It’s always a good night, regardless if they win or lose.”
“It’s incredible to be finally back.”
The Majors capped off the night by breezing to a 12-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, a score that wasn’t far off from London Mayor Ed Holder’s prediction of 11-3 for the Majors.
“More importantly, I’m going to predict that we will be in the IBL finals and take home the IBL championship,” said the mayor ahead of the home opener.
With a 30-season game now underway, Londoners will have 14 more chances to catch a game at home.
The Majors return to Labatt Park on Sunday when they face IBL reigning champions the Barrie Baycats. First pitch is at 7:35 p.m.