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Across the street from an empty Tropicana Field is the real gift of opening day

John Romano | As depressing as it may be to delay the start of a baseball season, there are more important pitches to be made.
The opening day bunting was hanging from the mezzanines at Tropicana Field on Thursday, but there was no reason for first base to be hammered into the clay with the baseball season indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. [JOHN ROMANO | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — The red, white and blue bunting is here, but the ballplayers have all gone home.

No Kevin Kiermaier, no Willy Adames, no one to shout “Play ball!" This is opening day, pandemic style.

The Rays dugout in Tropicana Field was so silent Thursday afternoon, you could hear the buzz of the air conditioners in the distance. First, second and third base were laying on their sides in the infield, just waiting for someone to pound them into the clay.

“Fresh paint" signs were still affixed to handrails in the bleachers as if those in charge of sprucing up the place had been interrupted in mid-paint stroke. The iconic opening day bunting had been hung from the mezzanines, but the plugs had been pulled from all the concession stands that line the corridors.

In barely two weeks time, we have grudgingly grown accustomed to the world shutting down around us. Bars and banks are closed. Schools are out and masks are in. And, yes, most of us seem to agree that live sporting events are a luxury we cannot afford in this era of coronavirus.

The scene from "opening day" at Tropicana Field on Thursday is eerie and empty. [JOHN ROMANO | Times]

Around here, we have already seen a Grand Prix race postponed, a PGA tournament cancelled, NCAA basketball games wiped out and four Lightning home games come and go without a single puck dropping.

And now opening day has been taken away, too. At least temporarily.

Newspaper style says the O and D are supposed to be lowercase, but it will always be Opening Day to those of us with stats imprinted on our souls. Its importance resides not on the results of the day, but in the promise of what’s to come.

You see, baseball is a game of patience and anticipation. It isn’t celebratory like a weekend football game. A season reveals itself in tiny doses, day after day, month after month as the final hours of spring give way to summer and eventually the beginning of fall.

Related: How Rays are playing the waiting game with opening day on hold

That’s what makes opening day special. It’s the start of a summer-long drama, like no other.

And yet, there was no sense of any of that on Thursday. No scalpers on 16th Street and no flag-wavers selling parking spaces in abandoned lots. No lines at the box office and no cheerful attendants at the gates.

I’ve walked across the street from Tropicana Field to sit at a picnic table outside of Ferg’s Sports Bar & Grill. I’m here, but owner Mark Ferguson is not. Nor are the Budweiser Clydesdales, who were supposed to be part of Ferg’s opening day festivities.

The bunting was partially hung inside the Trop, but there was nothing festive about this opening day. [JOHN ROMANO | Times]

Following ordinances, Ferguson closed the dining room and bar more than a week ago, then shut down the takeout food service a few days later.

“Opening day is the biggest day of the year for us," he says on the phone. “It brings out everybody in the city. People I haven’t seen in months come by on opening day. And it’s like that all across the country because opening day is the one day when every team has the same record and everyone thinks this could be their year."

The MLB Network tried to help with a marathon of previous season openers from noon to midnight Thursday, but they were a poor substitute. For a sport that hangs on nostalgia more than any other, opening day is the one afternoon when everyone wants to look forward instead of reliving the past.

Related: How Rays’ Kevin Cash and Pirates’ Derek Shelton shared a laugh on ‘opening day’

That’s especially true around here where the Rays looked to be on the precipice of something special. And now they’ll be toes-to-the-ledge for some indeterminate amount of time while baseball officials wait to figure out how to squeeze the greatest number of games possible into a dramatically shortened time frame.

Most of the parking lots surrounding Tropicana Field, meanwhile, sit empty except for one off 17th Street and First Avenue S. The Rays opened the lot to people who wanted to donate supplies to medical workers during the crisis.

On Thursday afternoon, city workers Melissa Scoggin and Jenna Botelho manned a table underneath a tree in the parking lot. Donations were fairly slow, maybe one every 45 minutes or so, but they didn’t feel like they were wasting time.

“One lady came by with a bunch of Lysol …" Botelho began.

“And that’s like gold around here right now," Scoggin finished.

It wasn’t the original, or preferred, opening day plan but that’s okay. At this moment, a donation booth devoted to hand sanitizer, masks and Lysol for medical workers fighting a deadly virus is about the best use of a stadium parking lot that I can imagine.

You know, I’ve always thought “Play ball" was the greatest two-word sentence ever composed.

But maybe I was wrong.

Stay safe.