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'A day of renewal' starts Squirrels season at The Diamond after 610-day break

'A day of renewal' starts Squirrels season at The Diamond after 610-day break

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Alvin Williams occupied his seat Tuesday night down the first-base line, where he has been stationed at Richmond Flying Squirrels games for more than a decade. Williams, 72, also was a regular at Richmond Braves games before the Squirrels came to town in 2010.

He attended dozens of opening days, but never one like Tuesday’s. The Squirrels played for the first time in 610 days.

“I am glad to be here,” Williams said. “Twenty-twenty, now that was a rough year.”

He comes for the baseball, usually with his glove to catch foul balls, but also for the social interaction with folks who he met at The Diamond through the years.

“I’ve got a lot of friends out here,” Williams said.

They kept in contact during the pandemic that scrapped last season throughout the minors.

To the unprecedented COVID-19 delay, add a common rain delay. The opener against Hartford was scheduled to start at 6:35 p.m., but an intense rainstorm with strong winds blew through town about 45 minutes before then.

Usher Cindy Wright, on the concourse behind home plate, went Wizard of Oz at the storm’s nasty height.

“I’ll get you and your little dog, too!” she exclaimed.

The first pitch was thrown by Squirrels right-hander Tristan Beck at 7:14 p.m., though the delay seemed inconsequential to fans who had waited since September of 2019 for the start of the next homestand.

“Back in the ballpark, back with the fans, back looking at baseball being played live in front of me in a minor league ballpark,” said Lou DiBella, the Flying Squirrels president. “A little bit of rain is not going to dampen the mood a bit.”

When it was time for the tarp to be pulled off the infield, Steve Kline helped. That’s notable because he’s the Flying Squirrels’ pitching coach. Backup players also became functional. They were bat boys for Hartford with no one allowed on the field but players, coaches, umpires and groundskeepers.

The Squirrels’ bat boy was Ryan Vogelsong, who pitched 12 years in the big leagues and is now an instructor for the San Francisco Giants, Double-A Richmond’s parent club.

Over the P.A. system, the franchise’s CEO, Todd Parnell, made a pregame request that fans “Respect the zip-ties.” The Diamond usually seats 9,560, but tops out at 2,943 during the first homestand because of Virginia pandemic guidelines that allow 30% of capacity, and MLB distancing policy. Black zip-ties identify seats that are to remain unoccupied.

In 2019, the Squirrels at The Diamond averaged 6,255, which led the Eastern League (now the Double-A Northeast) and ranked No. 23 among all affiliated minor league franchises. On Tuesday, Richmond sold out, at 2,943.

The team’s mascots, Nutzy and Nutasha, stood at the top of The Diamond’s front steps — with masks on — and welcomed fans. Among those who stopped to get reacquainted with them were Will Blackwell and his 4-year-old son, Remington. They have been counting down the days until the Squirrels’ opener, while stuck at home, while going for another trip to the playground.

For Will, who wore a black Squirrels jersey, the draw is the baseball. Remington is into the chicken nuggets. Everywhere, fans pull masks aside, up, or down to take a bite or a swig.

“Opening days for me in my life have been like days of renewal, almost like a holiday,” DiBella said. “This year more than ever, it’s a day of renewal. We’re back with our fans. We’re back with people we care about.

“We’re able to say hello to people we haven’t seen in a long time. It feels good. It’s a happy day.”

The pitchers are typically ahead of the hitters early in the season. Hartford pitchers were ahead of Richmond batters. Richmond struck out 12 times, drawing one walk, and finished with seven hits in Hartford’s 6-3 win.

The Flying Squirrels scored in the first inning on David Villar’s RBI double, but the Yard Goats (Colorado Rockies) took a 3-1 lead in the third inning on a three-run homer by Elehuris Montero. Hartford increased the advantage to 6-1 with a three-run sixth inning.

Andres Angulo's two-run single in the ninth closed the gap to 6-3.

The season-opener started a six-game series between the clubs at The Diamond. They go at it against Wednesday at 6:35 p.m.

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