‘Welcome back, everybody’: Phillies fans return for that rite of spring, Opening Day

Phillies fans arrive for opening day at Citizens Bank Park on April 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Phillies fans arrive for opening day at Citizens Bank Park on April 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

From his perch on a white upside-down bucket on Pattison Avenue, Rich Russell beamed with pleasure as masked fans streamed across the street into Citizens Bank Park to catch a game for the first time in a year.

For more than a decade, Russell has serenaded Phillies fans from this South Philly corner with his trusty alto saxophone. So when he learned fans would be back in the stands for Thursday’s Opening Day game, he knew exactly where he’d be.

Performer Rich “Doctor Rich” Russell welcomes back fans to Citizens Bank Park on opening day, April 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Russell kicked things off with a jazzy rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

“I just wanna say one thing: Welcome back, everybody,” said Russell, whose stage name is Dr. Rich. “Nobody knew from one moment to the next if we were even gonna get to this day.”

It was an imperfect day for baseball, cool, blustery, and at times, overcast. But after the COVID-19 pandemic took away the chance to cheer in person last season, the atmosphere outside the park was all sunshine.

Fan after fan said being able to attend Thursday afternoon’s game against the Atlanta Braves in person was a sigh of relief — a sign that at some point, things may finally return to some kind of normal after a year that’s been anything but.

Phillies fans pose for opening day photos in front of Citizens Bank Park on April 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s just a very surreal moment being able to be here,” said Alex Yousko, who drove an hour from Hamiltion, New Jersey to catch the game with a friend. “Hopefully we can get that capacity up.”

Alex Yousko (left) and Michaelangelo Greene (right) were excited to be back at Citizens Bank Park for opening day, April 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For now, about 8,800 fans will be permitted to buy home game tickets — less than a quarter of the total capacity of Citizens Bank Park, which seats just over 43,000.

And unlike last year, they’ll play a full 162-game season.

Seated at the base of the Steve Carlton statue planted outside the Left Field Gate, season ticket-holder Joe Abbruzzi said 8,800 fans is plenty for now.

He’s also used to sitting in a mostly empty stadium.

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The Howlinger family continued their tradition of attending the Phillies’ opening day game on April 1, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“I sat at the Vet with 7,000 fans for many years, so I don’t think 8,800 is gonna feel that different,” said Abbruzzi, who’s attended more than 40 Opening Day games.

How did it feel to miss the team’s first home game last year?

Joe Abbruzzi has been a Phillies season ticket holder since the 1970s and attended opening day, April 1, 2021 at Citizens Bank Park. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It was very sobering,” Abbruzzi said. “It’s a ritual of the springtime. We’re from the East Coast, so it gets warmer and baseball opens up that feeling.”

The Phillies return this season with a roster that will again feature some strong hitters, including right-fielder Bryce Harper, catcher J.T. Realmuto.

The pitching picture is less solid. But on Opening Day, everyone’s optimism for the season was still fully intact.

“I love this team. I think we have a really good lineup. If we can work out with the pitching then we’ll be good,” said Michelangelo Greene.

The Phillies beat the Braves on Opening Day 3-2.

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