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Even a small crowd will give the Yankees a big thrill

Yankees' manager Aaron Boone high-fives pitcher Jordan Montgomery

Yankees' manager Aaron Boone high-fives pitcher Jordan Montgomery during a workout at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Never will the approximately 9,000 fans who will be inside Yankee Stadium Thursday afternoon be so welcome a sight on site.

Forget that is about 20% of the Stadium’s official listed capacity of 46,537 and that, in normal times, the place would be jammed with a noisy sellout crowd, with all of the pomp and circumstance accompanying Opening Day in the Bronx.

No, after going through last year’s 60-game COVID-19-shortened season with zero fans in the ballparks, which instead were infused with the dull, mind-numbing piped-in crowd noise that was still better than the alternative of stone silence, players are thrilled it’s a number at all.

"Anything," Aaron Judge said in the spring, "is better than nothing."

And, as was shown during spring training when teams in Florida and Arizona played in front of a limited number of fans, they can still create some noise. Very welcome noise.

"Especially after experiencing empty stadiums [in 2020]," Chad Green said. "I just think we're all excited to have that, whether it's 10,000 people or 5,000 people, just have somebody there to get the adrenaline going. I think it's going to be fun for everybody. We’re all looking forward to it."

Ace Gerrit Cole, raised a Yankees fan by his father, Mark — who is a native of Syracuse — didn’t get anything close to the full experience in pinstripes in his first year as a Yankee after agreeing to a nine-year, $324-million contract in December 2019, said pitching in empty ballparks with the fake noise "was a bit surreal at first, and then it became kind of standard operating procedure."

"It was something you didn’t really realize would have as much of an impact as it did," continued Cole, whose parents and family will be in the stands Thursday. "And I think that we're more grateful to be able to share this experience with the fans going forward. It's something that I'll always remember. Every time I see a fan or sign an autograph for a kid, I'll remember at one point this [was] taken away from us and so it's very gratifying that they're going to be back."

Manager Aaron Boone said there wasn’t a "worst part" element to the pumped in noise, but it was a constant reminder "it just wasn’t [real] fans," among the reason even having 1,000 or 2,000 fans at spring training games was so welcome.

"Just to get a little bit of taste of that in spring training," Boone said. "A couple of games where you had a few thousand and it made a difference. It makes a difference. And however many we end up with, nine or 10,000, tomorrow . . . you know, nine or 10,000 fans in the Bronx is going to be fun to experience again. I know that the players are incredibly excited to play in front of a crowd."

Something the Yankees haven’t done at the Stadium since Game 5 of the 2019 ALCS against the Astros, a series they lost in six games on Jose Altuve’s walk-off homer off Aroldis Chapman inside Houston’s raucous Minute Maid Park.

"About a year ago, we were dealing with this shutdown and now the momentum of slowly opening up and expanding, and having the fans in the stands," general manager Brian Cashman said. "Our players, obviously, played last year in Yankee Stadium in front of nobody but fake crowd noise. But to actually see movement in the stands and people reacting, both positively and negatively to the play on the field, good or bad, for us or against us, it's going to be a welcome sight."

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