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Isotopes’ return ‘feels like a dream’

The Albuquerque Isotopes’ alter ego, Mariachis de Nuevo Mexico, played against the Sugar Land Skeeters to open their minor-league season at Isotopes Park on Thursday night. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

For Elsie Duran, getting a hot dog – mustard, relish and a little bit of onion, thank you – and watching professional baseball on Opening Night in Albuquerque is about as normal as it gets after a year that has been anything but.

She’s been doing it ever since the old Albuquerque Dukes were playing downtown at Tingley Field in the 1960s. That is except for two years there was no professional baseball team in Albuquerque (2001 and 2002) and last year when COVID-19 led to the elimination of minor league baseball across the country.

Rosemary Gover, a longtime Isotopes and Dukes fan, watches the Isotopes’ game on Opening Night with family members from the upper deck. ‘We never miss opening day. It’s an early Mother’s Day,’ she said. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

But Thursday night – 616 days since the Albuquerque Isotopes last played a home game in what is now called Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park – Duran and her family got her hot dog and she got to watch baseball.

“For us, this is our first time really out for anything in more than a year,” said Rosemary Gover, Duran’s daughter.

She said she and all her siblings – eight of them, including seven girls – are lifelong baseball fans because her mom and dad, the late Rudy Duran, always took them to games growing up.

Sam Hilliard points to the sky after his home run Thursday night for Los Mariachis de Nuevo Mexico, the alter egos of the Albuquerque Isotopes, in their long-awaited 2021 season opener. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“Even though we’ve sort of been cooped up for so long, we’re all vaccinated and we said, ‘You know what? Yeah. Let’s do it,'” said Gover. “We never miss an opening day. It’s an early Mother’s Day. Let’s celebrate. That’s what we’re doing – celebrating that things are getting back to normal, little by little.”

Duran and Gover were joined at the game by Gover’s sister and nephew – Ruby Sisneros and Matthew Sisneros – and were among the announced 7,171 fans at Thursday’s Opening Night game for the Isotopes.

And while the return of professional sports to New Mexico for the first time in more than a year was spoiled a bit on the field with the Sugar Land Skeeters’ 9-4 win over the Isotopes, the outcome of the game was far down on the list of things that seemed to matter.

There was a buzz in the air from opening gates at 5:30 p.m. until the 10:30 p.m. final out.

Longtime Isotopes fan Karl Hattler watches the Isotopes/Mariachis play Sugar Land from the ballpark and listens to it on the radio. Hattler attended the game with his daughter Rachael Hattler. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

A pregame tribute to longtime Isotopes Vice President Nick LoBue, a Day 1 Isotopes employee from 2003 who died in November due to complications from COVID-19, had many in the ballpark choked up.

The franchise renamed the concourse of the stadium “LoBue Lane” in honor of the popular former employee, whose 11-year-old granddaughter Avery Greene later nailed the National Anthem. LoBue’s grandson, Bryce, Avery’s 9-year-old brother, later caught a foul ball in the game.

For Jason David and his two daughters – Ariana, 9, and Elise, 5 – the baseball was good, but not the highlight of the night, but rather the two large turquoise foam fingers the girls had on one hand and the cups of Dippin’ Dots they were about to consume, had it not been for the delay of a pesky reporter interviewing them.

“It is nice to be around people again – just be back in public?” said Jason David, a pastor at Sunshine Church in Belen. “I’m not sure how else to explain it, but I think we were created to be together. And whatever that looks like, it’s just nice to be back with people again.”

For some Albuquerque couples, Thursday was the first date night out together without the kids in more than year to enjoy a drink and a beautiful night, and reflect back to when they were kids chasing home runs into the outfield lava rocks when Isotopes Park was known as the Albuquerque Sports Stadium.

That was the case for Albuquerque couple Elizabeth Keller and her husband, Tim, who is such a fan he was wearing personalized Isotopes jersey that read “Keller” on the back with the No. 1 – a gift to him from the team for his day job duties as Mayor of Albuquerque.

The Kellers, who went to different Albuquerque high schools, noted they each ran into old high school friends at the game. And as each sipped on a margarita, and between first stopping to take a sunset selfie together on the upper concourse and later to enjoy Sam Hilliard’s bottom of the third inning 2-run home run for the Isotopes, Tim Keller offered up a more official reflection of the significance of the night, even if he wasn’t at the game in any official capacity.

“You know, this is really a point of pride on two fronts,” Tim Keller said. “Number one, it’s a reflection of all the hard work everyone has done to get us to this point, whether it was essential workers or first responders, or everyday people just following the public health order.

“But number two, look, it’s summer. It’s baseball. It is a sight for sore eyes. And it’s something to actually celebrate that hopefully isn’t going to go away. You know, this is real. It feels like a dream, actually.”

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