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After a 20-month, COVID-induced hiatus it was good be back at the ballpark again

scottteaser-215x160-1-300x160-300x160The early 20th century novelist Thomas Wolfe warned that you can’t go home again.

He clearly wasn’t a baseball fan, because the game is all about going home again. And again. And again.

And Tuesday, on an absolutely, gorgeous 80-degree spring night, roughly 4,600 of us went home again. To Frontier Field. And a sense of normalcy.

After a 624-day, pandemic-induced hiatus, the Rochester Red Wings were back at one of our favorite gathering places. But this was about more than a return of the national pastime, which in 2020 for the first time since 1894 was not played professionally in the Flower City. This was a celebration of resilience and perseverance. This was about honoring the health care workers who held our hands and helped us emerge from the abyss of COVID-19. This was about remembering loved ones lost, especially Rochester’s Mr. Baseball, Joe Altobelli. This was about seeing and hugging friends we had missed dearly. This was about taking another step forward.

“Oh, my,” said longtime season-ticket holder Mary Blasko, who’s been going to Wings games with her soon-to-be-91-year-old dad Ed Blasko since the mid-1980s. “We’re home. Life is good.”

“Cheers!” Ed shouted, hoisting his plastic beer cup skyward from his seat several rows above third base.

Cheers, indeed.

Mary had arisen early that day, like some excitable kid who couldn’t wait until everyone was awake, so they could open their Christmas presents. She posted a link to John Fogerty’s classic baseball song, “Centerfield,” on her Facebook page. Her choice of music was impeccable.

“Put me in coach,” she sang, repeating one of the tune’s most famous lines. “I’m ready to play.”

We all were ready to play Tuesday.

Especially Dr. Michael Mendoza, the Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health, who has carried the weight of our region on his shoulders since the pandemic grabbed hold of our lives nearly 14 months ago. With a steady hand, he guided us through the uncertainty and necessary protocols. The Wings had asked Mendoza to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, an honor well-deserved. And it was nice to see him, clad in a Wings cap and jersey bearing his name, receive a rousing ovation as he toed the rubber. Mendoza wound up firing a perfect strike into the over-sized mitt worn by Spikes the mascot, eliciting a smile from the good doctor, and more applause.

“It’s just great to be out here, to see all the fans cheering, to be on this field again — for baseball and a community event,” Mendoza said. “Just an awesome feeling.”

As he scanned the concourse, and witnessed hundreds milling about, hot dogs, pizza and ice cream cones in hand, Mendoza couldn’t help but smile. It had been more than a year since our community had been able to gather together in such large numbers. It felt beautiful — and surreal.

“I’m grateful,” he said. “I look out at the crowd and I can feel the emotions, the gratitude the people feel because we’ve come through so much as a community. We’re not out of the woods by any stretch, but the light at the end of the tunnel is very visible now. This is a great symbolic first step towards that goal.”

Throughout the night, Naomi Silver, Gary Larder, Dan Mason, Will Rumbold, Matt Cipro, Nate Rowan, Tim Doohan, Nick Sciarratta and other members of the Wings front office made the rounds, like they always do, ensuring everyone was having a good time.

It was soothing to hear organist Fred Costello, tickling the ivories again, providing us with a ballpark soundtrack for a 45th consecutive season.

“Gonna keep doing it until I get it right,” he joked.

Over in section 104, just past the Wings dugout down the rightfield line, John Butterworth sat with his wife and friends and soaked in the sun and the camaraderie. There are neighborhoods scattered throughout ballparks, places where season-ticketholders become life-long friends. And Butterworth, who won 11 sectional and three state titles in his 28 years as a high school soccer coach, clearly was happy to be back among his neighbors.

“Walking into the ballpark tonight after last year’s empty drag, I felt a little bit of the drop of the shoulders, a tension release,” he said. “It just feels good to be back here and to see all these knuckleheads I haven’t seen in a while.”

At that moment, Wings slugger Carter Kieboom — what a great baseball name — boomed a home run over the right field fence. Butterworth and his neighbors hooted and hollered, and exchanged high fives and fist bumps.

“Been a while since we been able to do that,” he said, as Kieboom stepped on home plate. “Well worth the wait.”

The Wings are off to a horrid start in their first season as the top farm club of the Washington Nationals. And their losing ways would continue in their home opener as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, pounded them, 11-6, sending them to their 11th defeat in 13 games.

My sense, though, is that not many fans cared. Not on this night. Not after the nearly two-year baseball absence.

Most walked out of Frontier Field wearing smiles. It had been a good night. A glorious night. They had gone back home.

Again.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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