TAMPA, Fla. — Fans started streaming into Steinbrenner Field in the late morning Friday, and nearly all of the seats were filled 15 minutes before the first pitch.
It was a far cry from recent years. A year ago, in fact, brought something once unthinkable — a noticeable number of empty seats for the opener and an overall lack of buzz from Yankees fans. But it’s safe to say those days are in the past.
During introductions, new outfielder Giancarlo Stanton earned the loudest cheers from the sellout crowd of 10,129, which watched the Yankees beat the Tigers, 3-1, in Aaron Boone’s first game as manager.
“It’s always fun to shake hands,” Boone said with a smile.
Said Stanton, “Definitely a cool anticipation of something new.”
It’s safe to say that in his eight years with the Marlins, who never won more than 80 games in a season during his tenure, he had not experienced a spring training opener like this one.
“This is better,” said Stanton, who went 0-for-1 with a walk. “More excitement, more can’t wait to see what we can do [attitude from fans].”
First baseman Greg Bird, in his fourth big-league camp, also noticed a difference from previous years.
“I feel like even in BP and practice, people are watching. They’re not just at the park having a good time, they’re watching,” said Bird, who went 0-for-2 but made a nice catch on a foul ball. “There was definitely a buzz. It’s an exciting time.”
Stanton, who hit 59 home runs last season and was voted National League MVP before the Yankees acquired him in December, is a big part of that buzz, of course, along with Aaron Judge. The latter had arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder in November and won’t play the first four or five exhibition games.
“I think the excitement of this day and seeing a guy like Giancarlo out there, it seemed like a lot of people, maybe even more so than usual, were really looking forward to this day,” Boone said.
Batting second, which is a possibility when the regular season begins, Stanton worked an eight-pitch walk in the first inning and hit into a 4-4-3 double play in the third. Billy McKinney replaced him in right in the top of the fifth.
Bird, who batted third, said that when it comes to watching Stanton, “I’ve got the best view in the house, besides the catcher” and added, “I’m excited to watch him. I’m excited to learn from him.”
Stanton, like just about every other veteran, isn’t concerned with results in spring training, especially this early.
“Being completely ready, feeling how I would when I’m grooving in the season,” he said of what he’s looking to accomplish. “A little bit of everything; timing . . . I think the thing that takes the longest is the mental aspect of the pitches. The sequencing, how they’re going to pitch me with runners on and without runners on. Really, just getting the rust out.”
Stanton said he does not set any goals for himself in spring training.
“Just how I feel. Really, that’s all that matters,” he said before smiling. “It all gets erased in a month anyway. Whether you don’t get out or get out every time.”
Stanton said “settling in” to the Yankees’ clubhouse, one in which he knew few players when he reported on Monday, has been smooth.
“They’re making it easy on me,” he said. “All the guys are awesome. They’re easy to mesh with, easy to talk to, easy to work with. It’s been great.”