John Vollenweider was in his usual spot Thursday night at Zephyr Field.
Section 223. Row 5. Seat 20.
Vollenweider has been coming to New Orleans Zephyrs games ever since the team moved its home games from UNO to Metairie in 1997.
He’s a 76-year old retired fireman who plays Santa Claus during the holidays.
But Thursday night, he shifted into his other role: “the No. 1 Zephyrs Fan” he calls himself.
So Opening Night couldn’t get here soon enough for Vollenweider.
“I’m like boiled ham, I’m always ready,” he said. “I’m always ready for baseball.”
He arrived at Zephyr Field around 5:30.
He wasn’t the first one there.
That honor went to Kenneth and Linda Behrens, who were sitting outside Gate 4 at 4 p.m., three hours before the first pitch and two hours before fans would be allowed into the stadium.
They could’ve waited.
“But we wanted to be the first ones here,” said 75-year old Kenneth, dressed in a tie-dyed Zephyrs’ shirt he has had since the pre-Katrina. “We just love baseball.”
Kenneth and Linda took their seats in section 123, just two rows behind the Zephyrs’ dugout.
While Vollenweider and the Behrens have seen more Zephyr games than they can count, that wasn’t the case for Amit Sengupta and his wife Ruby.
The Kenner couple who moved to the New Orleans area from India, had never attended a baseball game of any kind before Thursday night.
“I guess it will be similar to cricket,” said Ruby. “We’re looking forward to seeing it.”
The Zephyrs didn’t waste time giving the Senguptas something to cheer about.
Leadoff batter Jordany Valdespin got the team’s first hit of the season in the first with a triple to right to start the game.
He showed off his blazing speed on the play, scurrying around the bases to turn what looked like a double into a triple.
The only person moving around the stadium faster was Zephyrs General Manager Mike Schline, who was busy making sure everything was just right for Opening Night.
“I’m running around, but it’s a good kind of running around,” Schline said. “When everyone is doing their jobs and everything is running smooth, it’s a good running around. I’d rather be doing this than troubleshooting.”
It helped, of course, that Mother Nature cooperated in what was a picture perfect night at the park.
And fans who like offense had to enjoy this one.
The teams had combined for 17 hits through just the first five innings of the season that Schline is optimistic about.
“But I’m excited about every season,” Schline said. “If you can’t be excited about Opening Day then it’s probably time for me to hang it up. The Marlins are making great improvements on the Major League level and I think they are going to show a lot of promise here. It’s a good mix of new prospects and veteran experience so I think that always makes for a well balanced team.”
And the mix of the crowd was balanced as well.
There were the long-time veterans like Vollenweider and the newbies like the Behrens, who had already became baseball fans by the fifth inning.
“We’re learning the rules and we’re having fun,” Amit said.