by Jeff Laughlin

Nothing compares to the middle of the first baseball game of the year.

Once the excitement of sitting outside and drinking beers wears off, those barrier innings separate the fanatics from the fans. The banter calms, the game settles into a less frenetic pace and people like the fans behind me remember: “Oh man, these games are long.”

That thought lingered especially long as the Greensboro Grasshoppers struggled to contain the Hickory Crawdads. Still, all the beauty of opening night heartened the capacity crowd. After a particularly brutal Southern winter — one which claimed two cars on Triad City Beat’s staff alone — I gave a little fist pump to see the temperature hovering around 70 degrees in the seventh inning.

See, that’s what all this meant. The roster, filled with free agents and late-round Marlins picks, changes so much every year that the fans don’t yet know their favorites. They don’t know which pitcher looked good last outing or who has a shot at moving up in the organization. Everyone has zeroes, or maybe last year’s stats next to them. Rookies have nothing to show for their careers yet.

So, the fans cheer on strangers, and the strangers try to deliver. Austin Dean, one of very few returning players, crushed a home run in the bottom of the first. It would be the only homer on the night, during a game riddled with early-season errors and only one multiple-run inning.

The highlights of Minor League Opening Night, though, included the familiar fans. There’s the explainer, a fan who knows every rule — even the ones that don’t actually exist — and explains them to the entire section. The constant risers — those that cannot stay in their seats and watch the game for more than four pitches at a time. The talkers make sure you stay entertained. The sarcastic screamers throw out hit-and-miss puns on last names (I’m so guilty of this it hurts).

Kids squiggle and squirm in their seats trying to make sense of lulls in the game. The parents near them try to keep them from wandering into the aisles and, all the while, the quiet fans lean back and soak in the chatter. To be one of those fans is to be doubly entertained.

Hickory scored four runs in the sixth as Miguel De Pozo labored through a full inning of work, testing the wills of the fans. The concession lines stretched around the walls of an already crowded concourse while Del Pozo gave up sharp single after sharp single. Patrons returning to their seats near me sighed and asked how the Hoppers could have given up four when our starter (Max Garner, 5 IP, 7 H, 1 ER) had been solid through five. Succinctly, a kid nearby said, “This new pitcher sucks. He doesn’t get anybody out.”

For one night, the kid was right. The sixth-inning outburst buried the home team. Hickory ended the night with 14 hits. You can’t scatter 14 hits. Well, unless each Crawdads starter gets at least one. I suppose that means they were scattered. The crowd murmured until commanded to sing “YMCA” or cheer for dancing children. The occasional clap-along or nice defensive play snapped people out of their reveries, but for the most part, the people socialized. The Grasshoppers weren’t winning, but the fans were. Once those brutal middle innings passed, we watched as the night settled in. The home team threatened but fell short of scoring in the eighth and people began to shuffle toward the exits, but they did so with smiles on their faces.

As the people reacquaint themselves with the sun, they also will remember that long games mean more beer. Plus, these guys play a bunch of games; they won’t all be lopsided losses — some will be nail-biters or walk-offs. Got to be. We can look forward to tense pitching duels and Hoppers blowouts throughout the summer, too.

For me, though, all the games will pale in comparison to that first feeling of triumph over beating another miserable winter. Suffering through a long inning certainly feels great compared to the ice. I love long innings in the sun. I love the fans filling the time with helmets of ice cream while holding their kids in their seats. I love drinking beer outside.

Even if the welcoming committee seemed a little distracted, we still welcome you back with open arms and open containers. Baseball, we missed you.

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