Everyone — even, I suspect, the visiting Arkansas Razorbacks — went to LSU’s Alex Box Stadium on Friday night looking for glimpses of The Box of old.
The rocking Alex Box. The seething, boiling Alex Box. The Alex Box that in this modern construction, or its Depression-era predecessor, could help push the Tigers over the top to the winning side, making it like a mini-version of Tiger Stadium, its imposing sibling across the street.
Friday night's series opener between LSU and Arkansas was the first game of the season in which Alex Box Stadium was cleared of all coronavirus-related fan restrictions. Every seat was available to be filled by a fan’s fanny. Masks were not required. Tailgating was allowed, even encouraged, with extra points if there was a cochon de lait cooking curbside. (Razorbacks in town, remember?)
The verdict? Well, higher attendance for sure. LSU announced a season-high paid crowd of 6,331. The actual crowd appeared to be up from previous home games this season. Zip ties clamping down seats to force folks into social-distancing were, thankfully, nowhere to be seen.
At some point, one of them had to break.
But was this reopening of The Box akin to an opened Christmas present for LSU baseball fans, hungry for a taste of the good old days? Not exactly. The ballpark looked about half full. Chalk that up to a variety of factors: folks not yet getting the word about a 100% open Alex Box; the threat of bad weather; the SEC Network broadcast; and last but certainly not least, the Tigers’ 6-12 mark in Southeastern Conference play. That record is now 6-13 in SEC play after Arkansas broke open a tight game late for a 7-0 win.
That said, there were moments when The Box of years past, of more normal and glorious springtimes, shone through. The fans in the yard boomed with delight in the first inning when second baseman Zach Arnold ranged far to his right, turned and leaped and made a brilliant throw to first. At the other end, Tre' Morgan made another one of his brilliant plays on the bag to get out designated hitter Matt Goodheart.
They howled in the fourth when LSU starting pitcher Landon Marceaux didn’t get a close shave of a called strike three on Brad Slavens, then roared with delight when he did fan the Arkansas first baseman to end the inning.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri certainly noticed the extra crackle in the air.
“It wasn’t packed,” Mainieri said, “but the energy and enthusiasm was noticeably different. It felt like the old days. It felt awesome to hear them. I just wish we could have done something offensively to really get them into the game.
“But it felt great, and I’m appreciative of the fans who came out on short notice when the governor lifted the ban earlier in the week.”
The fans wanted to will the Tigers to some offensive success in what was pitchers' duel between Marceaux and Arkansas’ Patrick Wicklander. You could almost feel the wind as the fans tried to draw a Dylan Crews fly ball into the right-field bleachers in the fourth inning, only to moan when the shot died on the warning track in the heavy, humid spring air. It was a recurring theme for LSU, which could never find the clutch hits the Razorbacks did for their runs in the seventh and eighth.
“It was definitely awesome to have more people come out,” said left fielder Gavin Dugas, who made those LSU fans happy to see him in turn after being questionable with back spasms earlier in the week. “It was awesome to see The Box rocking like it used to be. Hopefully we come out (Saturday) and take advantage of the energy they bring.”
Was it too early for LSU to remove the safeties from the fan experience here and at other outdoor venues like nearby Tiger Park, which goes full capacity Saturday in its series opener with Arkansas? We will find out when we check the local COVID-19 numbers a couple of weeks from now.
LSU and Arkansas will play two games Saturday because of inclement weather forecast for Sunday.
It's worth noting that LSU did not lead the pack when it came to reopening its venues. The Tigers played baseball last weekend in front of big crowds at Ole Miss, where fan restrictions had already come down.
At some point, the push to get people to get vaccinated has to start resulting in some tangible benefits, like being able to take in a game outdoors normally, especially if you’ve had your shots.
Bit by bit, like the 10,000 fans per day who were allowed to attend the Zurich Classic of New Orleans last weekend at TPC Louisiana, we’re clawing our way back toward normality. Hopefully, that means we’re on track to seeing something close to a full house Sept. 11 when LSU hosts McNeese State in its home football opener.
For now, this will do. A few cheers, a few howls, a few memories of how The Box used to be — and how it hopefully will be again soon.
The first LSU baseball game of the season with no coronavirus restrictions on attendance resulted in the biggest crowd of 2021 at Alex Box Stadium.