HOUSTON — Powerful.
And very, very weird.
The Astros finally returned to life at Minute Maid Park, during the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Silence and emptiness ruled the night. So did power and beauty.
This is 2020. Normal keeps eluding us. The present is maddeningly elusive. If we are being honest, we are all day to day.
A small but critical piece of our old normal reappeared on Friday.
Justin Verlander fired fastballs on a pitching mound in downtown Houston. George Springer, José Altuve and Alex Bregman topped Dusty Baker’s first lineup for the local orange and blue. The reigning American League champions hosted the Seattle Mariners in an AL West matchup that featured hits, runs, strikeouts and an 8-2 victory for the home team.
The Astros’ 2020 opening day also could have been played on Mars. It would have looked and sounded almost the same.
Major League Baseball’s long-delayed beginning was tolerable on television Thursday night. The whole no-fans-in-the-stands thing will always look super odd. But when the cameras zoomed in and 99-percent empty stadiums were conveniently cut out of the screen?
Baseball was back and at least we had baseball back in our otherwise crazy, surreal lives.
In person, the other 99 percent of the near-empty stadium constantly stands out and there are moments when you think you’ve been trapped in a Bizarro world that is broadcasting “The Twilight Zone” on endless repeat.
Pumped-in fake crowd noise sounds like a weak air conditioning system.
Behind the Astros’ first-base dugout, the “crowd” was limited to six photographers and three Astros pitchers. If you know your baseball, you know that MLB pitchers sitting in the stands during a game is 1,000 percent out of the ordinary.
But when AC/DC’s “Back in Black” cranked through the stadium speakers at 8:04 p.m., the blood pumped a little faster. When Verlander threw the Astros’ first pitch of 2020 at 8:11 p.m. and three quick outs followed, it was easier to remember that the team backing him had made the World Series two out of the last three years.
And when Seattle’s Kyle Lewis blasted a 95 mph fastball onto the left-field train tracks, it really did feel like some form of baseball was back.
The bat loudly cracked. Players inside the Mariners’ dugout jumped, cheered and screamed. Near-silence was broken by human athleticism and awesome power.
When Michael Brantley lifted a three-run home run into the right-field stands, capping a five-run fifth inning, the Astros actually looked like the Astros again and Minute Maid Park became as loud as possible at this unprecedented moment in MLB history.
Why do we keep coming back to baseball, year after year, decade after decade? Why do we eventually forget about another selfish, bitter labor battle between billionaires and millionaires during a time of economic upheaval and social unrest?
Because nothing can replace the sound that a home run makes inside a baseball stadium. Even without fans in the stands.
“Now, more than anytime, baseball feels like America’s game,” Baker said. “And it wasn’t there for a long time.”
When does baseball stop alternating between awesome and weird?
But you know exactly what the city streets near Minute Maid Park are normally like on a Friday night a couple hours before game time. The buzz you can feel as the ballpark gets closer and closer. All the people, cars and traffic.
On the evening of July 24 in the year 2020, it felt like 95 percent of the cars were missing, traffic was way too easy, and Minute Maid Park initially seemed more like a doctor’s office housed inside a government facility.
Hand sanitzer. Security screening. No-touch temperature check. Credentials check. Masks, antibacterial hand wipes and more hand sanitzer. Then a Major League Baseball stadium devoted to the contemporary art of social distancing.
Baker was forced to wait almost six months to manage his first game with his new team. When opening day finally arrived, the 71-year-old manager acknowledged that this opening day just didn’t feel the same.
He was grateful and thankful. But so much was obviously missing.
“I don’t know if I’m going to have the same nerves or not, being on the field, without the fans,” said Baker, who wore a Black Lives Matter T-Shirt while speaking with the media pregame via a video conference. “This is different. … But at least we have a game.”
The golden banner from 2017 on the left-field light pole looked like it had been transplanted from another world.
An offseason sign-stealing scandal that rocked MLB to its core and forever changed the Astros’ golden era felt like a distant problem from a safer, simpler time.
The words and sounds of Bob Marley and Van Morrison helped Baker find a rhythm within all the new silence.
“We’re not healed yet. But we’re on the way,” Baker said. “We’ve just got to find a way to stay safe during this because we can’t afford another stoppage.”
The silence also said more than any noise when the Astros and Mariners knelt before the playing of the national anthem.
Empty parking lots mirrored the stadium’s stillness.
Stands were the ultimate symbol.
In a normal world, the ballpark would have been absolutely packed, tickets would have been a highly prized (and priced) commodity, concourses would have become louder and louder as the first pitch approached, and standing-room only would have meant exactly what it said.
For the first game in 2020, after a 2019 season that saw the Astros win a franchise-record 107 contests and host Game 7 of the World Series?
You had to be a cardboard cutout to sit in the Crawford Boxes. Which meant that the rest of Minute Maid Park was devoted to rows and rows of unfilled dark-green seats.
Someone should have been standing in right field among an orange sea of fans, waiting to leap upward, reach out and grab Brantley’s three-run shot.
As weird as the evening began, the night felt more normal as the hits, runs and innings piled up.
I was lucky to take it all in, in person.
I wish more than 43,000 Astros fans had been there to see their team again, in person.
And to hear the sound that a major-league bat makes when it blasts a home run.
The sound of normal.