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A ticket to the Yankees’ spring opener was like winning the Powerball for these N.J. fans

TAMPA – Like any group of serious Yankees fans, Tom Murphy and his buddies spent days mouse-clicking like madmen, hoping to score tickets for Sunday’s exhibition opener against the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s only spring training – something a reasoned outsider would say – but try telling that to a Jersey emigree who’d been to every Grapefruit League opener since Steinbrenner Field was built in 1996.

Try explaining tickets were almost impossible to come by this weekend. Manage those expectations. Catch the game on YES Network. Try meditation. All sanity-preserving alternatives to click-click-clicking your days away.

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Maybe so, but Murphy’s perseverance paid off. His group luckily snagged the last four available seats, which left open to debate which had greater value to a Bombers die-hard: a winning Powerball stub or the chance to see Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu in person after being shut out in 2020 thanks to COVID-19.

Dumb question, obviously.

“Just being here, the feeling is energizing,” said Murphy, originally from Spring Lake. “We’ve got fresh air, sunshine, it’s 84 degrees. I can’t wait for a hot dog!”

The enthusiasm ran just as high with Nick Deluca, who like Murphy was rocking a Yankees jersey. He grew up in Queens rooting for the Bombers … wait, a Yankees’ fan in Mets’ country?

“Exactly,” Deluca said with a laugh. No explanation necessary. The man is so loyal to the brand he embeds “23” in his email address. And if you don’t know what that number represents to a Yankees fan – think: the Captain – then you best head for the exits. And you sure wouldn’t get why those tickets mattered so much.

See, the spring training opener has been a ritual not just for Murphy and Deluca, but to 16 other friends and family members. Every year, the caravan would pull up to the GMS Field parking lot at 11 a.m. to kick off another glorious season. But the herd was forced to thin, as the Yankees granted first-access to season tickets holders. Only after that batch had been exhausted were the rest made available to the general public.

The supply was almost gone before Murphy and company finally hit the jackpot.

“I know we got the last ones, because the moment after we bought them the page said, “no seats available,” Deluca said. So they invited Deluca’s son, Regan, and Mike McCaffrey, a Budd Lake native. They were among 2,637 others who watched the Yankees lose to the Blue Jays, 6-4.

It wasn’t a particularly good day for the Bombers in the field – starter Michael King, vying for the No. 5 rotation spot, surrendered three runs in two innings. The Jays, who pose the greatest threat to the Yankees in the East, looked dangerous at the plate. (Bombers’ note to selves: Their lineup might be better than ours.) But the fine print was less important than the vibe in the air.

The fans were “absolutely” happy, said a ticket-taker whose name tag said “Judy.” She declined to give her last name, although there was no mistaking her real job as meeter-and-greeter, chatting up the locals as they trickled in.

“You can see they’re all in a good mood, glad to be here,” Judy said, even if it wasn’t quite the equivalent of pre-pandemic life. Capacity was limited to 25% by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which kept the concourses mostly empty. Nicole Harrington, who sold beer, popcorn and pretzels at a stand along the first-base line, said, “Normally the place would be packed by now (around noon). You’d have trouble moving around.”

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But minimal foot traffic kept the lines short at the concessions, where cops and security seemed to outnumber the ticket buyers – most of whom were retirees and tourists. Among those behind Door No. 2 were Hank Ellison and his fiancée Michelle Thibeault, from Oxford, Conn.

The two landed tickets at the last minute, but unlike their Jersey counterparts who all now live in Florida, Ellison and Thibeault had to quickly book a flight from New York to see the Bombers. Don’t ask if they gave it a second thought.

“We needed some normalcy,” Ellison said. “Beer and baseball.”

“We didn’t play around,” Thibeault added.

The pair, who arrived in Tampa on Friday, will head home on Wednesday, but not before catching Gerrit Cole’s Grapefruit League opener Monday against the Tigers. Watching two games in less than a week is the equivalent of batting 1.000 if you spent all of 2020 consuming baseball on TV.

That’s why the homecoming felt so familiar, like plopping down again on your favorite couch. Paul Olden’s voice boomed richly over the PA system – albeit to remind fans to mask up and observe social distancing. “New York, New York” was fired up after the last out. And in between was all the baseball a starved fan could hope for, even if the game itself was only seven innings and most of the starters were pulled after two at-bats.

If it wasn’t perfect, it was close enough. Either way, the Yankees were just as glad to turn back the clock.

“It was cool,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Even on the bench over there, where we sit just outside the dugout, we made reference to it a couple times with the coaches, ‘How nice is it having people in the stands?’”

No one was complaining, not under a warm sun and a promise of better days ahead. It’s possible capacity will increase for spring games by mid-March. There’s similar optimism in New York. Both the Stadium and Citi Field are currently planning to keep crowds to 10%, but a Yankees official said, “We have a feeling that’s going to change” before Opening Day on April 1.

In the meantime, it’s calisthenics for everyone, including fans who are firing up their lungs again. That, and handicapping the only team that matters to them.

“If Judge and Stanton stay healthy,” McCaffrey said. “I think we can take it all.”

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Bob Klapisch is a freelance columnist who covers the Yankees and Major League Baseball for NJ Advance Media.

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