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For Nats fans shut out of the park, a strange opener

People walk around Nationals Park ahead of Washington’s home opener against the New York Yankees on Thursday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Hours before the truncated, jury-rigged, pandemic-delayed 2020 baseball season finally got underway Thursday night, with no paying spectators in the seats, an avid fan named Sophia Kaounas, who lives near Nationals Park, stood in her jogging clothes on an almost empty sidewalk outside the stadium and said, “Can I tell you a cool story?”

Go ahead.

“This morning I was running on the Georgetown waterfront,” she said, “and I saw someone decked out in all red — Nats gear — and I knew right away that when I approached him, I’d be saying, ‘Go, Nats!’ So I get little closer, right? And I realize — it’s Max Scherzer! And I couldn’t help myself. I said: ‘Hey, Max! Go, Nats!’ And he says, ‘Go, Nats!’ And then I just kept running.”

Scherzer, the ace of the Nats’ pitching staff, was Thursday’s starter on Opening Day, such as it was this coronavirus summer, with piped-in crowd noise, social distancing in the dugouts, face masks everywhere, no beefing in an umpire’s grill and (is this actually possible in the big leagues?) no spitting allowed.

“I really wish I could’ve given him a hug or a high-five,” said Kaounas, 28, a legal analyst for the Air Line Pilots Association. “But I withheld.”

She shrugged. “I couldn’t, you know? I mean, these days . . .”

This MLB season will be weird and not without risk. I can’t wait.

Your team’s home opener — that winter’s-over date circled on every fan’s calendar — was until this year a festive, play-hooky afternoon in early spring when somehow, always, the air was warm, no matter the temperature, and the sun shined brightly even when it didn’t.

And if your team had won the World Series the previous October — well, the pregame mob scene outside the ballpark was an all-out carnival of joy and anticipation. Last autumn, after the team’s raucous championship parade through downtown Washington, legions of Nats fans looked forward to another celebration, welcoming their heroes back to the field.

“We haven’t missed an Opening Day in forever,” David Morris, 51, said Thursday as he exited the Team Store at Nationals Park. His wife, Julie Allard, in her 40s, held a plastic bag filled with Nats paraphernalia. “It was going to be like Opening Day on — I hate to use the word ‘steroids,’ but Opening Day on steroids. Opening Day plus Christmas plus the Fourth of July all in one.”

Allard said: “The noise, the excitement, the goose bumps. It was going to be the World Series parade all over again. The crowds, the energy — everything.”

Now, in the blistering heat, with a 60-game season (pared from 162) set to open within hours, almost four months late, the streets around them were practically vacant.

“I’m still struggling with it,” said Craig MacHenry, 34, who has a Nats’ tattoo on his left biceps. He was walking along N Street SE near the ballpark, unsure whether to embrace or reject this scaled-down, geographically realigned version of a baseball season, with teams playing only opponents in their regions of the country, mixing the American and National leagues.

“I mean, do I think it’s legitimate?” he said. “Is there going to be a legitimate World Series champion from this? No! Unless it’s the Nats, of course. That’ll be okay, back-to-back champs.”

Anyway, the New York Yankees are in town.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and America’s best-known coronavirus expert, who has been benched by President Trump from White House briefings, was in the Nats starting lineup, throwing the ceremonial first pitch.

As the stadium announcer shouted the lineups through the PA system, Amy Degnan sprinted toward the first base gate.

“Fauci! I want to see Fauci throw the first pitch!” Degnan, 35, screamed as she shuffled up three flights past women doing workouts on the empty stairs.

Degan, an operating-room nurse, considers Fauci an American hero. She failed to get a glimpse of the famed scientist through the blue screened gates but plans to write in his name as a presidential candidate in November.

“Seriously. Fauci 2020,” Degnan said.

Meanwhile, on jumbo screens at Parking Lot C, the team announced an urgent warning: “Please do not congregate around Nationals Park.” And few did. About an hour before game time, set for 7:08 p.m., the Half Street promenade was deserted but for a handful of desperate, pleading fans.

“Sell us tickets!” Hayden Bluth, 40, bellowed. “Sell us tickets! Let us in!”

Forget about it.

At the center field gate, a tall fence of heavy iron bars was locked, the two dozen turnstiles beyond it shrouded in black covers. “Welcome to Nats Park,” a sign reads. Another says, “Express Entrance”; another reads, “Additional Seats at Right Field And First Base.” And the blinds were drawn on the 14 ticket windows, a sign in each saying, “We intend to reopen as soon as possible.”

A block away, at an outdoor eating-and-drinking spot called the Bullpen, a small crowd had gathered to watch the Nats on TV.

“This is a great way to get out of the house and do the baseball thing,” said Erin Cassella, 23, as she and a friend, who had made reservations, waited to enter. She didn’t have to shout through her mask to be heard. Closer to game time, other bars also began to fill up as much as social distancing allowed.

The circumference of the ballpark outside is a 20-minute amble on foot. You could stroll it at midafternoon Thursday and count just two people in Nats caps, another in a Scherzer jersey, three joggers, two dog walkers and four TV crews with almost nobody to interview.

On South Capitol Street SE, a pretend hawker who goes by Freemont X was shouting, “Tickets, tickets,” then laughing maniacally at anyone who turned to look. And there was a 9-year-old boy named Billy on the First Street sidewalk, gazing up at the towering stadium.

“Whatcha looking at?” he was asked.

He stared at the giant facade, shading his eyes.

“Nothing,” he said.

Long ago when a historic crisis left the owners of the national pastime wondering what to do, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a letter to the baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, in mid-January 1942, a month after the United States’ entry into World War II.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt told him. “There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.” Stressing the need for folks to briefly relax, he said, “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which could be got for little cost.”

How quaint.

Putting aside the country’s virus-fueled unemployment rate of 11.1 percent as of June; the antiquated notion of a big league game clocking in at a scant two hours; that almost nothing in modern sports can be “got for little cost”; and that fans this year are barred from ballparks — except for that, Roosevelt’s letter still holds true in one respect, as Kaounas sees it.

“A diversion, a distraction, something different from the normalcy we’ve been living all these months,” she said. “I think FDR had it right — we need this. I can tell you, it’s rejuvenating for me. I’ve been looking forward to July 23rd for a long time.”

Never mind the shortened schedule, the expanded rosters, the game-hastening rules changes, the manufactured crowd vibe.

“I’m just really excited,” Kaounas said. “I’m going to have a hot dog bar with my boyfriend at home tonight and we’re going to watch and enjoy.”

At last, now you have a box score to pore over.

In case you missed the game.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of David Morris. It has been updated.