ORLEANS – The chairs started being placed on the hill overlooking Eldredge Park on Friday. Melanie Amerault and her son Ryan, year-round residents of Orleans, wanted to make sure their preferred spot was secure well before their beloved Orleans Firebirds returned to the field for their season opener against the Harwich Mariners two days later.
“It fills up fast,” said the mother minutes after she and her son, one of the bat kids for the team, set their chairs down on the grass after the Firebirds’ practice. “That’s why my chairs are going out today. I know if I don’t put them out my spot will be gone because this is a very well sought-after spot.”
The Ameraults were among the hundreds of baseball fans who flocked to Eldredge Park on Sunday night. Much of the home crowd went to see the Firebirds defeat the Mariners —and Orleans did just that, by the count of 8-1 — but the game was much more meaningful than rows of numbers filling out a box score.
It was a celebration, not just for Orleans but all of Cape Cod. After the 2020 Cape Cod Baseball League season was canceled due to COVID-19, the league set a new attendance record Sunday when a combined 10,808 people attended its five opening day games, more than twice the 4,828 that showed up at the league’s 2019 opening day.
“I didn’t know there were going to be this many people here,” said Orleans manager Kelly Nicholson. “It was great. I thought it was a really great atmosphere for our home opener, and it was great that everybody could see with our new lights.”
Red Wilson Field in South Yarmouth drew the largest crowd, as 2,800 showed up to see Yarmouth-Dennis tie Brewster 5-5. Orleans had the next most fans, drawing 2,533, while 2,021 went to Lowell Park in Cotuit to see the defending champion Kettleers top Wareham, 8-5.
“I looked at (assistant coach) Jesse Woods at one point and said, ‘This looks like a playoff crowd,’” Harwich manager Steve Englert said after Sunday’s loss. “It was awesome. It was fantastic. It was a huge crowd tonight.”
The home crowd left happy after the Firebirds’ lopsided win. The outpour of runs began with a thrilling moment for the Ameraults as one of the players the family hosts during the summer, Julio Marcano, hit a solo home run to give Orleans a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third.
It was a familiar feeling for Marcano, who also began his 2019 summer with the Firebirds by hitting a homer in his first Cape League start with the club.
“It’s just a great feeling to get your first hit out of the way,” said Marcano, an infielder from New Jersey Tech. “When you hit (a home run), you don’t even really hear the crowd. You’re in your own world, you’re on cloud nine when you’re jogging around the bases. It’s just a great feeling when you’re coming home and all of your teammates are there and they are all happy.”
Orleans maintained a 2-0 lead until the fifth when second baseman Jace Jung (Texas Tech) brought Jared McKenzie (Baylor) home with an RBI single. The team tacked on four more runs in the seventh after a fielder’s choice hit by Tyler Locklear (Virginia Commonwealth) scored Justin Miknis (Kent State) and Chase DeLauter (James Madison) broke things open with a three-run home run.
“Going up to the plate, I figured, ‘Hard-throwing righty, he’s going to try to attack fastballs early in the count,’” DeLauter said of his approach. “I got that fastball on the outer half and just tried to put a good swing on it with runners in scoring position and got a lot of barrel on it.”
Two University of Georgia pitchers — Jonathan Cannon and Michael Polk — were the first two to toe the rubber for Orleans. Cannon allowed two hits, struck out two and walked one in four innings before handing it over to Polk, who earned the victory after tossing two scoreless frames in relief.
Carter Smith (Brigham Young University) pitched the seventh and eighth before Nick Wallerstedt (Arizona State) pitched the ninth. Cory Acton (University of Florida) plated Harwich’s lone run in the ninth inning on a fielder’s choice.
Nick Sinacola, a North Attleboro native who pitches at Maine, took the loss for the Mariners after allowing two earned runs in four innings of work. He allowed three hits, struck out four and walked two batters.
After the game, the Firebirds players making their debut said they were thrilled with their first taste of Cape League baseball.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played in front of this many people,” DeLauter said. “You could tell kind of leading up to this that the entire community cares a lot. You could tell tonight, a couple thousand people showed up. It was a great night.
Email Brad Joyal at email@example.com