The lights seemed brighter, the grass a little greener. The smells of peanuts and popcorn were in the air upon entering Segra Park. The smoke from the hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill floated over the seating areas, making it all seem normal even though COVID-19 restrictions were still firmly in place.
Minor league baseball was back in Columbia on Tuesday night after an absence of 621 days.
The Columbia Fireflies opened the season with six road games, but they made their long-awaited return to one of the finest minor league stadiums in all of baseball. The crowd was less than the 50% capacity limit — 3,135 of a possible 4,950 that was put in place by Fireflies management, at least for the month of May.
The team awarded those in attendance with a 4-3 win thanks to an RBI triple from Darryl Collins followed by a run scoring-single by Brady McConnell in the eighth inning.
The lines at concessions looked normal. The reduced-price Miller Lites, French fries and nachos were selling at a brisk pace. Kids ran free and did not have a care in the world as they entered the playground area behind left field.
The return of baseball outweighed any restrictions in place, according to Bill Nix of West Columbia.
“How could you not be happy to be back at the ballpark?” Nix said. “With everything people have had to endure over the last 12 to 14 months, this is just another step in getting things back to normal. I watched the (Atlanta) Braves the other night and they had full capacity at their stadium. It is only a matter of time before we return to that here in Columbia.
“But if this is what we must do for now to have baseball, I’m willing to abide by any rules they have in place.”
The Fireflies might eventually return to 100% capacity, but for now they’re offering plenty of room for fans to feel comfortable within Segra Park.
There are four sections where socially distancing is not required. Masks are not required while in seats or when actively eating or drinking, so that allowed people in those sections to interact normally.
The remainder of the ballpark has what is common inside stadiums, concerts and arenas across the country — seats that are zip-tied and unavailable for use. People might have been more apt to wear masks in those sections, but they still enjoyed being out with people in a safe setting Tuesday while enjoying America’s pastime.
“I thought as long as you were outside everything was fine,” long-time baseball fan Karen Hinds said. “I’ve been vaccinated and the people sitting here with me have been as well. I am comfortable not wearing a mask while outside.”
As far as to what the rest of the season holds, that’s still an unknown. The trials and tribulations that come with opening night were still evident. Team Ppesident John Katz made his way through the stadium troubleshooting issues and putting out fires where necessary.
Overall, it was a successful first night. As the next four months unfold, more and more spectators will likely make the trek back to Segra Park and bring back a small piece of normalcy.
“I’m definitely returning,” USC student Rob Ellison said. “The beer, the atmosphere, baseball, it was great. I might be back before the weekend is over.”