TAMPA — Steinbrenner Field was quiet again Saturday, as the Yankees took batting practice in an empty ballpark, something the players grew accustomed to a year ago.
So when fans are allowed in to Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Blue Jays, the people in attendance won’t be the only ones who are grateful.
“It’s very welcome,’’ DJ LeMahieu said of the return of fans. “I’m really excited to get some people back in and hopefully more as the season goes on. It’ll be good to play in front of fans again, that’s for sure.”
The last time the Yankees were able to do so was last March, before spring training was shut down because of COVID-19. While some teams allowed fans in the stands and there were people on hand for the NLCS and World Series in Houston, the Yankees didn’t play before any.
“To me, it’s just Major League Baseball, with fans,’’ LeMahieu said Saturday. “Last year, I was glad we played and were able to get in as many games as we could and I thought the playoffs were cool, [but] you just miss the excitement. You can definitely tell how excited people are to go to baseball games.”
The 2,400 or so expected to be allowed in — 25 percent of capacity — will see a Yankees team with its eyes on another October run. That journey begins Sunday, with right-hander Mike King on the mound.
“I’m excited to start building, from a game standpoint, toward the regular season,’’ manager Aaron Boone said following the Yankees’ final workout before the exhibition season.
Though he’ll be in the dugout, Boone also said the fans’ presence would make an impact.
“Watching other events throughout the offseason, college football [and] NFL games, where fans were there in a limited capacity, it does change the look and feel — even watching on TV,’’ Boone said.
Boone said there were times he was so locked into games that he didn’t think about the odd atmosphere, but there was one notable exception.
“The first time we played the Red Sox was the first time I really noticed it,’’ Boone said.
The manager added he’ll begin the process of trying to bring the team together Sunday, when catchers Gary Sanchez, Kyle Higashioka and Robinson Chirinos come to Steinbrenner Field for the rest of the spring. They have been working at the team’s minor league complex with the other pitchers and catchers, while the position players have been at Steinbrenner.
As the spring progresses, Boone wants to make sure the entire team is together enough to build the camaraderie he values, which is harder to come by because of the pandemic.
“Driving back and forth [between sites], trying to strike that balance, I have to be a little more strategic about how I do that,’’ Boone said. “I do really value our team being together.”
And the process of attempting to return to some form of normalcy continues Sunday.
Earlier in the week, Giancarlo Stanton welcomed the thought of eliminating the pumped-in fan noise stadiums used a year ago that some players found distracting.
Luke Voit noted it felt like “five years” since the team had played in front of a crowd.
Even LeMahieu, who had another terrific season with the Yankees, said his game was adversely affected by the emptiness in parks around the league.
“Just the adrenaline wasn’t there as much as a player,’’ LeMahieu said. “When you stretch [on the field] before a game, you get the juices flowing, usually. There was no one out there, so we had to dig deep. … Having fans, at least some, is good for the game.’’