ST. LOUIS — The journey back to normalcy — or whatever the new normal will look like in a world where vaccines are available and our ability as a society to lessen COVID-19’s impact has increased — is a bit different for everyone. There are small steps and big steps along the way.
For me, Thursday represented two big steps. Giant steps. Long-, long-awaited steps.
After dropping our kiddo off at daycare, I drove a couple hours down Interstate 44. At a drive-thru vaccination site on a Phelps Health Center parking lot in Rolla, Mo., I got my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at 9:53 a.m.
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Two words kept rolling around in my head as I waited the recommended 15 minutes before heading back to St. Louis: “Almost there. Almost there. Almost there.”
Full immunity — or close to it — from the Pfizer vaccine kicks in between one and two weeks after the second dose. My wife has her first dose, and her second one is scheduled for a few weeks from now. We have a long list of travel plans for this summer. Almost there.
The second big step happened at 12:21 p.m.
That’s when I walked into a MLB ballpark for the first time since Oct. 30, 2019, when I left Houston’s Minute Maid Park a couple hours after the last pitch of a thrilling Game 7 of the World Series. Obviously, I had no idea it would be so long between trips to a big league ballpark. Heck, about a month before Game 7, I’d moved with my wife and daughter back to St. Louis, primarily so I could cover MLB from Busch Stadium on a daily basis in 2020.
That seems like a decade ago.
I cannot tell you how good it was to be back at a ballpark for a regular-season game. I was in Florida for spring training in early March last year and returned home a few days before Rudy Gobert tested positive and the NBA shut down. For the next several months, “normalcy” did not exist. As a company, we did not cover events in person once it became apparently how the pandemic would impact 2020. I fully agreed with choosing safety over everything else.
One of my favorite things about being at the ballpark — or basketball arena or football stadium — is watching the stands fill up as game time approaches. That obviously didn’t happen today. Busch Stadium is operating currently at 32 percent capacity; the announced attendance of 13,328 was officially considered a sellout.
Looking around the stands as the home opener ceremonies happened — honoring legends like Bob Gibson and Lou Brock who have passed since the last time fans were in attendance — was strange. It’s just odd to see 13,328 fans socially distanced and spaced out.
And yet, it was wonderful just to see any fans in the stands. The same two words hit me: “Almost there. Almost there.”
I brought packs of baseball cards to the game. Baseball cards, diving back into collecting, helped in 2020. It just seemed right to bring them to the game, to pass out in the press box and to fans who happened to follow me on Twitter.
i know none of you are surprised by what i brought to the ballpark today …
if you’re going to be here for the game and want a pack, let me know! i’m giving them away until they’re gone … pic.twitter.com/ZuDe4tvYXz
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) April 8, 2021
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It was a bit chilly in St. Louis, with temps in the mid-50s. And it felt a bit colder than that, considering temps have been in the 70s for the past few days. But every window in the Busch Stadium press box was wide open, because there were baseball sounds to be heard. Everything felt familiar, hopeful. Even the roar of the crowd on a fly ball that had no real chance of clearing the outfield fence? I loved that, every time.
And then, Nolan Arenado happened.
This was his first game in a Cardinals uniform at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals traded for the All-Star third baseman this offseason, in a deal that some have called a heist in the team’s favor. The Rockies are paying a large chunk of Arenado’s salary, and the return that headed to Colorado was seen as light by most talent evaluators. And rumors have connected Arenado to the Cardinals for a long time, so this is a fan base that was very excited to welcome its new superstar, finally, to its home ballpark.
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Arenado stepped to the plate with the game tied 1-1 in the eighth inning. Austin Dean was on first base, with one out. Arenado hit the first pitch from Drew Rasmussen over the wall in left field, the sound of the bat connecting with the baseball leaving very little doubt where the ball was headed.
Just like that, the Cardinals led 3-1.
The roar of the 13,328 fans screaming with joy sounded like at least 26,656 fans. Hopefully, soon enough, there will be 25,000 fans in the ballpark. Then higher and higher capacities until, maybe, at some point this season, we get to 100 percent.
Almost there. Almost there.