DENVER -- Baseball's home opener represents peanut shells crunching underfoot, expectant grass, the aroma of hot dogs and cold beverages enjoyed liberally.
It symbolizes hope. Wait 'Til next year is here.
And then. ... Home Alone.
That's the best way I can describe attending the Rockies' first game at Coors Field in 2020. The game hasn't changed, unless there are extra innings or you recognize the DH on the scorecard in the National League park.
Everything else has.
It started on my drive to the ballpark. Traffic leading into Lot A at Coors Field was a stranger. There were plenty of good spots available as I pulled in behind the left field wall at 3 p.m. From there, my routine changed. I covered roughly 70 Rockies' home games a year for 15 years. I would enter into the back gate, walk through the bowels of the stadium to the stairs before finding my seat in the press box.
Not Friday night.
There are no season credentials, and my lifetime honorary Baseball Writers of America card is useless. Only daily passes are issued, and those are picked up at the home plate entrance after a temperature check and the signing of a release form.
Outside the stadium is always a cool scene before the first game. Up with Purple. Parents with beaming kids. Friends decked out in jerseys.
It is electric. Friday was acoustic.
The silence was odd.
Prior to the game, shortstop Trevor Story received his Silver Slugger, awarded to him for his status as the best hitter at his position last season. Fake cheers bounced off the stadium seats. Nolan Arenado walked out to accept his Platinum and Gold Gloves. Same silence. It was like a dress rehearsal for a wedding. Everything was in the right place, but nothing felt real.
It wasn't awful. And it was better than the alternative of no baseball. It was weird, though. I felt for the handful of fans standing outside the gates peering into the stadium. They waved. I wanted to let them in to change the vibe.
That point was driven home as the teams were introduced and the national anthem played. The flyover remained part of the experience, but I longed for the vapor trail of oohs and aahs.
A special moment on the jumbotron followed. Family members and loved ones wished the players good luck for the season, acknowledging the pain of not joining them on this special night.
At one point, Kyle Freeland's dogs popped up on the screen -- Kona and Benny. It humanized a sterile moment.
The baseball was, for the most part, crisp. The Rockies continued to pitch well with Jon Gray's 95 mph game-opening heater an ode to the team's dominance off the mound this season.
One thing you quickly realize in an empty venue: no detail becomes too small.
When Story singled for the game's initial hit in the bottom of the first, the claps from the dugout were not only audible, but welcomed. Imagine finding the last copy of "War and Peace" in a library and your subsequent yelp. That's what this is like.
The excitement and passion of teammates remains authentic. They roared from the dugout after Matt Kemp's two-run double shoved the Rockies ahead 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth. And when Story homered in the seventh to give the Rockies a 5-4 lead, a player from bench screamed, "Get out ball!"
It was cool. It just seems misplaced because we've never heard this in the big leagues before.
The canned crowd cheered "Tooooniiight!” as outfielder Charlie Blackmon stepped into the batter's box to The Outfield's "Your Love." He promptly blistered a two-run home run. This was baseball in a studio with a too-polished script.
The noises? It was like extras wandering the lot at Paramount.
The last time I remember hearing a dugout conversation while covering a big league game? Try Albert Pujols' homer off Brad Lidge in the NLCS. The park in Houston went from volume 11 to mute, except in the Cardinals dugout where players congratulated Pujols in English and Spanish.
I could tell you Friday brought back memories of the purity of the game. That would not be case.
This is baseball brought to you without a bubble and during a pandemic. Staring out at the empty seats -- on sun-splashed 82-degree night with a breathtaking sunset -- it put the risks in context. Baseball is happening, for which I am grateful. Both my sons play college ball, and I coached every summer for the last 15 years until now. I love the sport.
What, though, is this cost of this? Is it worth it? Those are fair questions. The players I have talked to from Nolan Arenado to Blackmon to Story to Freeland want to play. They feel safe, even if it requires extreme vigilance, if not willful bliss.
The baseball season continues to hang in the balance after 29 positive tests last week, 21 from the Florida Marlins. Only so many games can get postponed before completing 60 becomes impossible. Would they decide the postseason teams based on winning percentage? It seems crazy. But, nothing is off the table this summer.
What did playing baseball Friday mean? It was not the same, not like we have grown accustomed for generations. It represents hope, not just for the season, but for what we might be able to accomplish if we continue to pull together as a society.
At one point in the sixth inning, a TV anchor near me ran down a foul ball in the concourse. There was no one else to get it. He will remember retrieving that souvenir.
I will never forget this game. It was Home Alone. And something that will hopefully only grow in significance because it will never happens again.