“I’m gonna have to get used to this again.”
In spite of some drizzle turning to a light sprinkling, fans were streaming into Haymarket Park. Memorial Stadium, the headliner eagerly waiting for its turn to come, served as the backdrop. Music blared through the speakers. The sun started poking through cloudy Lincoln skies around the turn of the fourth inning. A normal March day.
And yet there was so much energy.
This game, maybe for a lot of people, might have been just an excuse to get out to a Husker venue, to put on their red jackets and hats, and cheer for a team donning that illustrious N. Some have been waiting to cheer on Will Bolt and his squad, tired of listening on the radio. Whatever the reasoning, Nebraska sold a good allotment of the tickets it made available on short notice, and Husker nation filled about 1,600 seats.
I saw a couple pose for a picture from the upper deck on the third-base line with their infant child before the game. Months ago, I’d imagine they might be a little hesitant handing their phone off to a stranger. A sign of how much progress we’ve made. There’s still work to be done, for sure, but Friday was what we suffered for.
Fans are coming back to ballparks and arenas and stadiums across the country en masse. It’s possible Nebraska football’s Red-White Spring Game on May 1 will be one of the biggest sporting events in terms of crowd size since the coronavirus pandemic ground the sports world to a halt last spring.
We were always going to reach this day. We closed in hopes that we’d be able to reopen. Friday, for Nebraska at least, was the reopening.
And boy did it feel great.
The voice of the Huskers—Greg Sharpe—had a smile you could see even through the mask. Val’s pizza was cooking. Fairbury hot dogs were flying through concession windows. I missed that stupid, oversized, red hot dog.
Fans sat through rain shortly before first pitch around 2 p.m. CT. When the sprinkles started hitting the windshield on the drive in, the Akron football game from 2018 popped into my head.
Obviously different degrees, but I was excited for Friday’s Nebraska-Minnesota match. I presume others were, too. This was to be the first Nebraska sporting event with ticket-wielding fans in a year. What if weather took it away? That worry was short-lived. The rain cleared and made way for baseball.
The first inning got rolling and Nebraska pitcher Cade Povich sat the Gophers down 1-2-3. A groundout gave Nebraska its first out and fans something to cheer. The second out of the game—so… meaningless, really—was so normal and so wonderful.
Minnesota second-baseman Zack Raabe thought he’d reached on a fourth ball, only to be brought back on a second strike. Husker fans let him hear it. He fouled off two more pitches and then was struck out swinging by Povich. People went wild.
Another groundout six pitches later sat Minnesota down.
Husker center-fielder Jaxon Hallmark stepped to the plate after a Joe Acker flyout, took two balls and a strike, and then blasted a solo shot right into the roof of the concession stand out beyond the left-field wall.
The crowd rose to its feet.
In the third, Acker singled to lead the Huskers off. Spencer Schwellenbach smacked a double into the gap at right-center field a batter later and Acker stretched two bases into three and a score. The cap flew off as he rounded third and he slid home safely to put Nebraska up 2-0.
A happy roar erupted from both the field and the stands. It wasn’t full but it sounded like it.
Povich pitched a brilliant seven innings, giving up only four hits and striking out 10 Gopher batters.
After his final strikeout of the day, ending the top of the seventh inning, we had the liveliest seventh-inning stretch I’ve ever seen. Minnesota kept making mistakes. Nebraska kept capitalizing. The crowd kept showing love.
“I’m excited for our players,” Bolt said before the game. “They’ve been through a lot in the last year, had a lot of things taken away.”
Football got to play in front of families, but stadiums stretching to the skies that are usually filled to the brim with screaming fans laid mostly barren throughout the Big Ten this past fall. They had to bring their own juice. Artificial crowd tracks just added to the weirdness of the affair.
Basketball had to do the same. Bring your own juice. Both Fred Hoiberg and Amy Williams’ teams might have won another game or two with the juice Husker Nation usually brings to Pinnacle Bank Arena.
We know why they weren’t there. It didn’t make it any less strange, or sad for the teams.
Maybe you’ve had a moment recently where something pretty mundane that used to be commonplace pre-pandemic was back, and you got caught feeling some type of way about it. We had so much of our day-to-day lives taken away or altered, simple things became more than that.
This was a simple baseball game with simple baseball happenings taking place and Nebraska simply executing its way to a win, and it felt special. Forgive me for maybe making too much of that, but when Husker AD Bill Moos announced earlier this week fans would be returning this weekend and I messaged my editors asking to come out Friday, I wasn’t expecting the kind of emotional relief that was waiting at Haymarket Park.
The bats were pinging and the umps were hearing it again from unhappy Huskers and the walk-up music was playing and people who hadn’t seen each other in some time were catching up. Maybe there were folks in the stands just taking it all in and feeling thankful to have this back.
For so long all we had was blind faith in the dark that the light at the end of the tunnel was coming. With the sun fully out by the sixth inning and the clouds clearing, the end of that tunnel seemed pretty darn clear.
As I walked through the entrance of the ballpark, a fan behind me said “I’m gonna have to get used to this again.”
Hell yeah, you are.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.