- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Trey Mancini stepped up to the plate for the first time since discovering a cancer that could have killed him.

Tommy Pham got a couple of at-bats in after a stabbing that nearly did kill him.

Feel-good stories weren’t hard to find as major league spring training games opened this week in Arizona and Florida. Mancini’s comeback after a year off to treat his colon cancer left some of us on the verge of tears, while Pham’s return to the Padres’ lineup after being stabbed outside a strip club was reason for a smile.

And, as always, more players were feeling better about their bank accounts, including third baseman Hunter Dozier, who agreed to a $25 million, four-year contract with the Royals just as the exhibition games began.

The best feeling of all? That would be looking into the stands in both states and seeing fans there to watch the games.



Actual fans, to be clear, not the cardboard variety that were cute to begin with but now thankfully need to find new homes in closets across the country. There weren’t a ton of fans because of coronavirus restrictions, but there were enough to make a difference and give us hope that this year will be very different from the last.

“I hit a ground ball but just hearing the fans kind of spark up,” Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said. “You hear that instant crowd reaction. Kind of had little butterflies getting back to your first at-bat.”

That was pretty much the reaction from players around both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues. They were not only happy to be playing again, but thrilled by the return of fans to the spring training ballparks.

Turns out crowds matter in sports, even if it took a pandemic for players to fully appreciate them.

“We made reference to it a couple times, how nice is it having people in the stands,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I saw a highlight before we walked out of BP. A kid chasing a ball going over the fence and those kind of things. It’s been too long.”

Way too long, even though last year’s shortened season ended earlier than usual with the Dodgers breaking a 32-year drought by winning the World Series. There were some fans in attendance in Texas to watch, but for the most part the 2020 season will be remembered for empty seats, cardboard cutouts and fake noise meant to cover up the whole joylessness of it all.

Now there’s optimism in the air, not just for sports but for the world as we know it. Every team still has a chance to make the World Series, and every player and fan knows they eventually will be able to get a vaccine shot.

Hope may always spring eternal, but this spring we’ve got a lot more to hope for.

The role that fans play in spring training this year will surely be more noticed, if not more important. Without them, there’s no smell of hot dogs, no cheers and no one rushing to chase a foul ball.

Without them, the grass doesn’t seem nearly as green.

By this time next month when the real season starts, there will be even more of them watching. Barring a spike in infection rates, ballparks in all MLB cities will welcome them on opening day, and capacity limits figure to eventually be loosened, if not entirely abandoned.

That means baseball more or less as usual, though it’s not time to discard that mask just yet.

Wear one to go catch one of those six- or seven-inning games that will be the norm this spring, assuming you can get a seat. With capacity limits in place, tickets are already at a premium and being resold at inflated prices for fans starved for real baseball.

Wear one to get a glimpse of Pham on a San Diego team that is suddenly loaded with talent. Wear one to see Mancini play on a Baltimore team that will struggle to stay out of the American League East basement.

The 25% capacity crowd on hand in Florida did just that Sunday and got more than just a ragged spring training opener. Mancini hadn’t played in the year since finding out he had Stage 3 colon cancer two weeks shy of his 28th birthday, and he got a standing ovation from both dugouts, as well as the crowd, when he went up for his first at-bat.

“It was amazing,” Mancini said. “I almost teared up a little bit, I’m not going to lie … it meant the world to me. It was a really, really cool moment and one of my favorite moments of my baseball career.”

A cool moment for everyone, really, which is what made having fans on hand even better. The Orioles’ best — and most popular player — singled in his first at-bat in a year, and if he was nearly in tears, so were most of the people in the ballpark.

It was the best kind of start for a season already shaping up to be the best ever.

 

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