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Yankees excited about playing in front of fans again

Empty stands are shown at George M. Steinbrenner

Empty stands are shown at George M. Steinbrenner Field during aYankees spring training workout Tuesday in Tampa, Fla.  Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

TAMPA, Fla. — It won’t sound anything like a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium in October. It won't even sound like a full house at Steinbrenner Field for a typical exhibition game.

No matter.

Yankees players can’t wait. Period.

For the first time in nearly a year, the Yankees will play in front of fans — in the range of 2,000, give or take a couple of hundred — Sunday afternoon at Steinbrenner Field when they open their Grapefruit League schedule against the Blue Jays.

"It feels like it's been like five years since we played in front of fans, so I can't wait," Luke Voit said. "You'll probably get a little ovation even if you get a single, which will feel awesome. And they do the Opening Day lineups. I'm excited."

The 2020 regular season and postseason — up until the World Series at neutral-site Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, when some fans were allowed in — was played without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All clubs pumped in crowd noise as a way to cut the silence and provide some ambient sound, but nothing compares to the real thing.

"I know we're all looking forward to that. No more fans through the speaker system," Giancarlo Stanton said. "We need some live-action fans, and I think it'll be great for the fans as well to be able to get their mind off of something for a couple hours, come see us play and just enjoy being outside and back to somewhat normalcy."

On Wednesday, Steinbrenner Field personnel began the process of cordoning off sections of seats, using thousands of zip ties, to ensure social distancing in the stands. There will be some form of that at all spring training sites, as each team is allowing a small number of fans inside their ballparks.

"To me, it's just Major League Baseball with fans," DJ LeMahieu said. "Last year, I'm glad we played. I'm glad we were able to get in as many games as we could, and I thought the playoffs was cool. But you just miss that adrenaline, that excitement. You can definitely tell how excited people are to go to baseball games and especially to watch the Yankees."

The last time the Yankees played in front of fans was March 12 in West Palm Beach against the Nationals in front of a sellout crowd. Word trickled out during the game that MLB planned to suspend spring training indefinitely — and delay the start of the season — part of a cascade of COVID-related cancellations across the sports world that took place in a dizzying 24-hour period.

"I would say the adrenaline just wasn't there as much as a player," LeMahieu said of what stood out the most to him with no fans. "You come out for stretch [before] the game and kind of get the juices flowing usually and there's no one out there. You really have to dig deep with your teammates to do it. Just having the fans, at least some, I think it's going be good for the game and good for the country for sure."

Aaron Boone said he got used to fanless games fairly quickly, but when the Yankees played a certain traditional rival, he couldn’t help but notice the lack of buzz.

"First time we played the Red Sox is when I really noticed it," Boone said. "Because, honestly, I noticed it less in other situations.

"Like for me, it was very easy to get kind of locked in at 7 [p.m.], it's game time, and the competitiveness of the game worked, it was effective. But there were certain times — the Red Sox series really stands out to me [and] a little bit the Mets as well — where there's just that normal extra buzz and angst and intensity in a regular-season setting.

"So more for me, it was just different times of the occasions when you do look up and take something in that wasn't there. But I would say the first time we played the Red Sox was the first time it really hit me hard."

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