Plaschke: Opening day at Dodger Stadium is another empty moment in pandemic

Plaschke: Opening day at Dodger Stadium is another empty moment in pandemic

“Play ball?” Not here.

The eternally hopeful cry that begins every baseball season at Dodger Stadium was missing, silence shrouding a beautiful spring afternoon.

“It’s time for Dodger baseball?” Not Thursday.

At the 1:10 p.m. scheduled first pitch of the Dodgers’ season opener against the San Francisco Giants, the Dodger Stadium entrance on Vin Scully Avenue was virtually empty. There was no herd of excited fans crossing the street, no line of anxious drivers filling the parking lanes, no horns, no music, no buzz.

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The situation was best described in three words found in front of the gate, printed on the saddest of opening day signs: “No public access.”

On a day when the pandemic-caused suspension of the baseball season knocked baseball fans down like a high inside fastball, a stadium that should have been sold out was empty, surrounded by a solitary cheer.

 A pedestrian looks at an entrance to Dodger Stadium that is closed on what would have been Opening Day if not for the coronavirus outbreak.

A pedestrian looks at an entrance to Dodger Stadium that is closed on what would have been Opening Day if not for the coronavirus outbreak.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

“Go Dodgers!” shouted a guy through the rolled-down window of his truck, after which he clapped his sanitary-gloved hands together and drove away.

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On a day when the entire city seemingly flocks to Chavez Ravine for an annual celebration of renewal and rebirth, the only traffic jam — stretching for nearly a half mile — led to the Los Angeles Fire Department training center parking lot on Stadium Way.

The cars were lined up for drive-through testing for the coronavirus.

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You never forget your first opening day.

As I stood in front of the “Welcome to Dodger Stadium” sign Thursday, I could actually hear the sounds of my first opening day.

“Huuu-beee, Huuu-bee.”

It happened 30 years ago, my first full season covering the team for The Times.

It was April 9, 1990, eighth inning, the San Diego Padres leading 2-1, two Dodgers on base, and up stepped new right fielder Hubie Brooks.

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He was a hometown kid from Compton who had just signed with the Dodgers over the winter. He was playing in front of a large gathering of family and friends.

Were you there? Do you remember? I not only still hear it, I can feel it.

Brooks drove a ball into the left-field pavilion for a three-run home run that eventually won the game and inspired a new Dodger Stadium chant.

“Huuu-beee! Huuu-beee!”

I’m not the only one who heard that chant Thursday.

”You don’t forget that. I don’t forget it, I’ll never forget it,” said Brooks, 63, when I reached him by phone in his Woodland Hills home. “Opening day is opening day, there’s nothing like it.”

Brooks played only one year here before being traded. He spent 14 seasons with other teams, hit 148 other home runs, but he says nothing will compare to that debut blast.

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“To do that on a new team in your hometown, that was big, really big,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re in Little League or the big leagues, opening day is always special.”

The public entrance to Dodger Stadium is closed on what would have been Opening day if not for the coronavirus outbreak.

The public entrance to Dodger Stadium is closed on what would have been Opening day if not for the coronavirus outbreak. At far right is an employee entrance.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Pitching for the Dodgers that day was Orel Hershiser, who felt goose bumps then as the Dodgers ace, and now as a Dodgers broadcaster.

“Spring is in the air, in the stands and on the field,” he said this week. “The energy is palpable. The goose bumps are always there.”

The Dodgers didn’t throw a big opening day celebration for the first two decades in Los Angeles. They played most of their home openers at night in front of crowds of about 30,000.

Then, in 1977, Fred Claire, then the club’s vice president of marketing, decided to make opening day an event. In Tommy Lasorda’s debut season as manager, the game was moved to the afternoon, Frank Sinatra showed up to sing the national anthem, and the Dodgers have been throwing annual parties ever since.

“Growing up in Ohio, I knew the impact of opening day,” said Claire, who eventually became the Dodgers’ general manager. “It was the end of winter and the start of something new — a true beginning of the year for baseball. I felt strongly this could work in Los Angeles.”

It worked so well that every opening day, the stadium essentially hosts a neighborhood block party, which made Thursday afternoon seen even more somber.

That partygoers were missing. The first pitch was canceled. Spring was on hold.

The chants of “Huuu-bee” were supposed to be replaced by cries of “Mooo-kie” for new Dodger Mookie Betts. Clayton Kershaw was supposed to be showered with cheers for his franchise-record ninth opening day start.

“Obviously, the past few weeks have been incredibly surreal on a number of fronts, and I think today really brings it home with what we all expected to be doing on March 26 and what we are doing,” Andrew Friedman, Dodgers president of baseball operations, told reporters during a conference call.

If baseball returns this year, there will be a different opening day, and it will be joyous, but the memories of its initial absence will forever sting.

Down the street from the stadium Thursday, a yellow duplex on Vin Scully Avenue appeared empty. There was nobody on the porch, nobody on the stairs, nobody on top of a garage that was locked shut.

For the last five years, this has been the unofficial opening day party house, overflowing to the rafters, Dodgers jerseys everywhere, more than 175 revelers last season.

This year, party host Daniel Garcia was so upset at the quiet that he left the neighborhood and drove to his office.

“This just feels surreal,” said Garcia, 31, a paralegal. “Usually this place is packed, everybody honking and wearing Dodger blue. Now it’s just sad.”

“Happy opening day?” Not on these streets.

Alicia Garcia, Daniel’s mother, woke Thursday morning and offered the opposite of a traditional greeting to her son.

“Sad day,” she said. “Nobody’s here.”

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