Having a ball: Judge, Yankees glad to see some seats filled

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Aaron Judge tossed several balls into the crowd, just like always. Only this year the fans can’t toss them back to the New York Yankees star in a friendly game of catch.

So while the souvenirs stay in the seats because of COVID-19 protocols, the slugging right fielder is still getting something in return.

A reaction, even for making a routine out.

“I hit a groundball but just hearing the fans kind of spark up,” Judge said. “You hear that instant crowd reaction. Kind of had little butterflies getting back to your first at-bat.”

On the opening day of the exhibition season, Judge went 0 for 2 in the Yankees’ 6-4 loss to Toronto in a game shortened to seven innings, as Major League Baseball is permitting in these early spring training matchups.

An announced crowd of 2,637 at Steinbrenner Field — about 25 percent of capacity — marked the first time the Yankees have played before fans since a spring training game last March 12.

“We’re all excited to finally have some fans even though it wasn’t a packed house, but anything is better than nothing,” Judge said.

The game had most of the normal pomp and circumstance at the Yankees’ spring training home opener.

New York wore its pinstripe uniforms for the only time during the exhibition season. The jersey top this season has a No. 16 patch on the left sleeve honoring Hall of Famer Whitey Ford, who died last year.

Both teams gathered along the infield foul lines for the announcement of the starting lineups. A moment of silence was held for Yankees co-chairperson Hank Steinbrenner, who also died in 2020.

The limited crowd size is one of the safety protocols in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We made reference to it a couple times, how nice is it having people in the stands,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I saw a highlight before we walked out of BP. A kid chasing a ball going over the fence and those kind of things. It’s been too long.”

But differences from the past remain quite evident.

The Yankees’ YES Network play-by-play team of Michael Kay and David Cone both worked from home. Radio announcers John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman called the game remotely as well.

Protocols at Steinbrenner Field include a masking mandate, which was flouted by a number of fans.

Judge, meanwhile, eagerly awaits a time when he can again play catch with fans in-between innings. In the meantime, he has a plan to overcome the limited interaction.

“Just let my play be the connection,” Judge said. “Put on a show. I think that’s all you can really do. ”

NOTES: Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and Detroit RHP Kyle Funkhouser are the scheduled starters for Monday’s game at Steinbrenner Field. It will be new Tigers manager and former Houston skipper AJ Hinch’s first game against the New York since the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal broke last year — a scheme that many in the New York organization feel cost them a World Series trip in 2017. “We spoke about this at length last year and dealt with it,” Boone said. “I have beyond moved on from it.”

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