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OC Register: Hoornstra: After a long year, baseball is a spectator sport again

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OK. Pandemic joke.

Two fans walked into a baseball stadium in 2020. They took their place in the front row of the outfield bleachers. The first batter of the game slugged a pitch over the fence for a home run. The ball hit the first fan in the shoulder and bounced away, out of both fans’ reach. “Look, I know you wanted to sit close to the action today,” the second fan said to the first, “but maybe you’re not cut out for these seats.”

It’s been a long year. The coping mechanisms – Dad jokes, Zoom rooms, long runs, re-runs – ran the gamut. Unless you happened to be in Arlington, Texas last October, seeing a Major League Baseball game in person couldn’t cure your case of the Pandemic Blues.

It was Aristotle who coined the term “catharsis” to describe the process of releasing pent-up emotions. He seemed to grasp the mental constraints of solitude. He would understand why even cardboard cutouts attended baseball games in groups, even if he couldn’t understand why infield shifts were more effective against left-handed hitters than righties. There will be a lot of catharsis in Anaheim on Thursday, when the Angels open their gates to fans for the first time since September 2019.

Alex Gomez of Whittier and his brother, Anthony, had tailgated in the parking lot before attending every Angels home opener for 12 consecutive seasons before the COVID-19 pandemic. The tailgating dream is deferred, but at least the brothers will be in the ballpark Thursday. Until a couple of weeks ago, Alex Gomez said he hadn’t been to a public gathering of any kind since the pandemic began.

“After pretty much doing absolutely nothing the past year due to COVID restrictions and such, it feels great to venture out again and experience some normalcy,” he said.

Joel Campa of West Covina will attend Saturday’s game against the White Sox with his father, Joseph. He estimates he saw 35-40 games last season on television. It wasn’t the same.

“It was sad watching the games and not seeing any fans there last year,” Campa said. “There was not the same energy there.”

“I’m glad I haven’t gone to a game in so long,” said Ryan Tanner, who bought his tickets to Friday’s game during an early online pre-sale, “because it makes you appreciate the experience even more and to not take it for granted.”

Then there was Trevor Kennedy, a 23-year-old aspiring actor from Walnut. He’s biding his time working at In-N-Out Burger while his breakout role awaits. One day, he got an email from the Angels saying his window to buy tickets was opening at 9 a.m. that Wednesday. By 9:23, he owned six tickets to the April 19 game against the Rangers.

For Kennedy, like a lot of us, holding a ticket means more than being able to attend a baseball game in person.

“Not having baseball in my life was a real shock to me because I realized I would use baseball, either playing it or watching it, as an escape from reality, troubles, and dive into the game,” he said. “What would I fill my time with? The existential dread started kicking in.”

Kennedy’s playing career ended after his senior year at Walnut High School. He’s typically attended 20 to 25 Angel games in person every year since. When the 2020 season paused because of the pandemic, he turned to YouTube at first. He re-watched David Freese save the Cardinals from the brink of losing the 2011 World Series. He re-watched the Angels’ championship run from 2002.

Mostly, he fretted.

“I’ve been diagnosed with hypochondriasis,” Kennedy said. “It’s a form of anxiety that obsesses over being terminally ill or thinking you have a bunch of things wrong with you. I don’t have a filter if something’s physically wrong with me. For example, I stubbed my toe one day: ‘I’m going to get a blood clot, it’s going to travel up to my heart, and I’m going to die.’ The pandemic was not fun for me. I had to sit there and wrestle with those feelings rather than watching Mike Trout hit a grand slam.”

Eventually, Kennedy sought out therapy. He said he’s feeling better now, with less time to fret and Angel Stadium open to fans. Even with professional help, Kennedy said baseball still holds therapeutic value.

“You just kind of realize when you don’t have it,” he said. “Growing up, it was a huge escape. Extremely therapeutic for me. Not only learning social skills, I’ve learned so many life lessons from being part of a team, having one goal in mind, and being part of that goal. Anything I do now in life, I look into it as if it is a baseball team and how you would use success that way.”

The Angels, and every team hosting a game in April, now bear the burden of proof that attending a game in person is safe. Many fans are choosing to remain home until they are fully vaccinated, even as the new COVID-19 case rate in Orange County falls to its lowest point since June of last year.

Managers are often quick to remind reporters that Opening Day is no more important than any of the next 161 games. For fans, that simply isn’t true. After a long year, the gates are finally open to a familiar escape, a series of sights and sounds and smells that didn’t always translate to the small screen. The cardboard season is over. Baseball is a spectator sport again.

Fans wait for a foul ball to be hit down the left field line during batting practice before the start of the Angels’ 2018 season opener against the Cleveland Indians at Angel Stadium. After the pandemic kept fans out of the stadium in 2020, several thousand will be allowed in for Thursday night’s season opener against the White Sox. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

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