TAMPA, Fla. -- No more artificial noise pumped through the stadium speakers, which manager Aaron Boone once compared to the static of an old AM radio. No more moonshot homers or long foul balls rattling around empty sections, eventually coming to rest underneath a dusty blue seat.
For the first time in 353 days, the Yankees will play in front of a live audience on Sunday, expecting to hear non-digitally recorded cheers as they host about 2,800 fans for their Grapefruit League opener against the Blue Jays at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
“It’s very, very welcome on our end to get some people back,” said infielder DJ LeMahieu. “Hopefully, we’ll get more as the season goes on. I would say the adrenaline just wasn’t there [last season] as much as a player to get the juices flowing. You had to really dig deep with your teammates to do it.”
The Yankees’ last game with fans in attendance was March 12, 2020, a Grapefruit League contest against the Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla. All of New York's following games that season -- including playoff games in Cleveland and San Diego -- took place with closed gates.
“I’m glad we were able to play as many games as we could, and I thought the playoffs were cool,” LeMahieu said. “I just missed that adrenaline, that excitement. You can definitely tell how excited people are to go to baseball games, especially to watch the Yankees. That’s what I’m excited about.”
Numerous health and safety guidelines will be in place for Sunday’s game. Face coverings are required for all guests age 2 and older, including those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine. Capacity is limited to maintain physical distancing, with tickets sold in pods of four seats.
Cleaning and sanitation has been significantly increased at the ballpark, and plexiglass and other physical-distancing hardware has been installed. Complete information on the fan experience is available at GMSField.com.
“In watching other events throughout the offseason -- whether it was college football or NFL games -- they were different games when fans were there, even in limited capacities,” Boone said. “I’m sure it will be nice for the guys to have that environment and an atmosphere that only the fans can create.”
Clarke Schmidt started tossing his bullpens in December, reincorporating weighted balls into his regimen and seeing a velocity boost as he planned to compete for a spot on the Yankees’ Opening Day roster. That came undone last week, as the right-hander will be sidelined from throwing for three to four weeks due to a common extensor strain of his right elbow.
“I wanted to come in ready, almost as if it was midseason,” Schmidt said on Saturday. “I think maybe going into my first bullpen, I was letting it go a little bit too much. It’s a maturing process, learning what works and doesn’t work. Thankfully, when I got an MRI on it, everything was so clean on it structurally. It was best-case-scenario type stuff.”
The 25-year-old Schmidt is the Yankees’ No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline. Schmidt underwent Tommy John surgery as a junior at the University of South Carolina, a procedure that allowed New York to select him with the 16th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. Schmidt said he was thankful to learn that his ulnar collateral ligament remains intact.
“I’m going to be able to log a significant amount of innings this year and be able to contribute a lot,” Schmidt said. “It’s just another mountain to climb. I’m in a really good head space right now. Thankfully, I’m with a really good training staff, and these guys surrounding me are really good with what they do. I’m already feeling tremendously better.”
Ready for battle
Mike Tauchman understands that the Yankees project to have a surplus of outfielders on their roster, already stocked with Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge, plus non-roster invitees like Jay Bruce. Yet Tauchman enters the spring aiming to prove he deserves a spot.
“The thing about a team like this is that there’s always going to be a lot of really talented players around,” Tauchman said. “There’s always going to be a high level of competition. There are things I want to do and work on this spring. That’s going to be my primary focus.”
Tauchman was a significant contributor for the 2019 "Next Man Up" Yankees, but he struggled during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Boone has said several times that he believes Tauchman was “banged up.” Tauchman acknowledged on Saturday that he dealt with right shoulder discomfort last year.
“I don’t want to use that as an excuse,” Tauchman said. “At the end of the day, my production wasn’t there to the level that I hold myself to. I spent a lot of time this offseason addressing that, and I feel great. I feel as though my body is in a really good spot right now. I’m just excited to play some games.”
He said it
“Two of my most fun years were 2019 and ’20. To have the opportunity to do that six more years, it’s exciting and an honor to be part of this organization.”
Right-hander Michael King drew the start for Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Blue Jays, with first pitch scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET. Other Yankees pitchers include Asher Wojciechowski, Lucas Luetge, Kyle Barraclough, Nick Goody and Adam Warren. The game will be televised on the YES Network and can be heard on WFAN 660/101.9 FM.