FORT MYERS, Fla. — As with everything these days, there was quite a different look and feel on Sunday than early March 2020 when fans were last allowed to watch the Twins play. Spectators had to fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire upon entrance, seats were zip-tied to enforce social distancing, and fans were required to wear masks when not eating or drinking.
But the familiar sights, sounds and smells that make trips to the ballpark so special were back on Sunday after nearly a year without them.
Fans decked out in Twins and Red Sox gear cheered at every pitch, and the scent of hot dogs wafted through the air as an announced crowd of 2,154 fans — a fraction of Hammond Stadium stadium’s capacity — watched as the Twins beat the Red Sox 7-6 in seven innings. The Twins sold slightly more than 2,400 tickets per game, about 28 percent of Hammond Stadium’s capacity.
Count Devin Smeltzer, who started the game and pitched two innings, among those who was extremely happy for the return of fans.
“I was miserable last year. Bluntly,” Smeltzer said. “I feed off the fans. I’d rather have 100 million fans than no fans. I like feeding off them, whether we’re home or away. Everything from my debut in ’19 to the playoffs in ‘19 on the road in New York — the fans are what this is all about, and it’s just great to have them back.”
Smeltzer hasn’t pitched in front of fans since March 7, when the Twins traveled to the Dominican Republic to play in an exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. The Twins then went the entire truncated season without the general public in the stadium.
The only time they played in front of “fans,” last season was when the team admitted a handful of front-office members into Target Field to cheer on the team from the stands during the Wild Card Series.
“I heard some fans and some normalcy out there. It was pretty emotional. I got choked up a little bit,” Smeltzer said. “…I can’t express how great it is just to have whatever we have, the 2,500 here. It felt amazing.”
The fans who were in attendance were treated to a somewhat quirky baseball game — the game lasted seven innings, as agreed upon by the two teams before the start — and in the second inning, the Twins put up five runs and made just one out before the inning abruptly ended.
For the first part of spring training, teams are allowed to end innings after a pitcher has thrown 20 pitches and after the completion of an at-bat. Teams only have 75 players in camp this year and typically, they would use more than that to get through their spring training slate, drawing on minor leaguers on site to play during the later innings of games.
“Anytime the game changes one of its rules or it becomes a little more informal, it changes a little bit of the feel out there. But we need it right now,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “And these are the adjustments we’re going to make, and we’re all going to get used to them. And we’re going to take them for the benefits they’re going to provide.”
Still, quirky baseball and all, the Twins were grateful to finally have an audience.
“The feel of the game is so much different than anything that we were playing in front of last year. Just a completely different environment, and I think the energy level for everyone involved just spikes when we have that and it’s great to see, and I think everyone had a good time,” Baldelli said. “I think there’s probably a lot of people that have been waiting to get here, see games, see it safely and have a great day at the ballpark, and it applies the same way for us.”