The Dodger Stadium outfield pavilions have been smartly redesigned into an open, fan-friendly concourse, with added “home run” seats immediately behind the fences. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS / Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Sports Editor

On Oct. 15, 1988, I was rushing home from my night class at USC, hoping to catch the final innings of Game 1 of the World Series. True to form, L.A. traffic stymied that plan.

All vehicular movement came to a dead stop on the Pasadena Freeway curve around Chavez Ravine, so I flipped on the radio to keep up with the game. When Kirk Gibson’s home run sailed into the damp night, I could hear the roaring crowd from my car. I can’t know for sure, but it’s pretty clear occupants of several cars around me had left early to beat the traffic – and now were rueing that decision, slapping foreheads and banging on dashboards.

Who on Earth leaves the World Series early?

Since then, two generations of Angelenos have been waiting for a return to glory, and last year, it finally arrived. None of us, however, could have imagined the unfathomable circumstances that encompassed the season – and the entire world.

With the World Series trophy proudly on display, the Dodger players collect their championship rings before Friday’s home opener against the Washington Nationals.

So when I set foot into Dodger Stadium before Friday’s home opener, it was truly an emotional release. Not only has it again become possible to see a game in person, it’s a robust, tangible sign that the lives we had – happy or otherwise – are again within reach.

Forget the description of “normal.” The anxiety still hangs over us like a flock of well-fed pigeons on a telephone wire. More than half a million of our compatriots will never again be taken out to the ball game. The before times are long gone, and oh-so-many things are going to be different.

But different will include many new joys. The team raising their championship banner on Friday was just the start. That first bite of a Dodger Dog in a year and a half was heavenly. The smiles on faces and cheers in the stands was the resounding voice of optimism.

Manager Dave Roberts said he was “over the moon” to welcome fans back to the stadium for the first time since Oct. 9, 2019.

There’s plenty that’s new at the stadium as well. The areas within and behind the outfield pavilions have been smartly reimagined, and it’s an airy, welcoming space. You can completely circumvent the whole building, thanks to the new concourses, and several escalators have been added as well.

I doubt Vin Scully was in the stadium on Friday, but I can make a pretty fair guess at what he would have said. “It’s a glorious day for baseball.”

Manager Dave Roberts said he was “over the moon” to have fans back in the seats – even if that meant only one fan per three seats or so.

For certain, it was the smallest Opening Day crowd you’ll ever see at Dodger Stadium, with capacity topping out at around 15,000 fans due to COVID spacing precautions.

The customary parade of Dodgers greats on hand simply didn’t happen. Perhaps fittingly, one of the most familiar faces in recent times, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, was seen surveying the facility.

The Dodgers deployed admirable creativity in the player introductions, having pre-recorded well wishes from the childhood heroes of each man on the roster. Ichiro Suzuki introduced slugger Edwin Rios – in Spanish.

Kudos to Major League Baseball, not only for managing to put together a season last year, but a darn good one, with a thrilling post-season. The games were as solid as could be expected, with few substantial bumps along the way. The worst of it were the cardboard fans duct-taped to the seats. Creepy, having the frozen visages of Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey staring off into space during a game.

But of course the championship ring – set with over 230 diamonds and 40 sapphires – comes in a box with a built-in video screen.

The only decent moments for that paper remedy came when a home run happened to smack one of the Flat Stanleys square in the face, or the team staffer in Kansas City who propped up a cutout of the title character from “Weekend at Bernie’s” in the seats behind home plate. I hope that employee got a well-deserved raise.

We’re coming closer to the time when we won’t need to settle for “the next best thing,” the consolation of “well, at least it’s something.” We’ll have a full, 162-game season this year. Summer will regain its soundtrack, with Charley Steiner and Rick Monday trading dry witticisms on AM radio. Pitchers get to bat again.

Sure, it’s just a game, but therein lies the genesis of recovery. When all we need worry about is the score or Kenley Jansen blowing another save, we’re on our way back, baby. The mere gathering to play and watch the game is a beautiful harbinger of life on the other side of this nightmare.

We’re not there yet, folks, not by a long shot. Patience and common sense are still the rule. I’m not a physician, so before heading out to the stadium, take the next passage as humble urging from a lifelong student of baseball, not as any form of medical advice.

Siblings Bob and Joyce Kubo were among the fortunate fans to score tickets – and the season’s first Dodger Dogs – for the opener.

Get vaccinated. Get your family vaccinated. After you’ve completed that, if you come to the ballpark, don’t forget your mask. Heck, let’s bring two! (nod to Ernie Banks.)

Last October, Justin Turner was in the Bubble, isolated with his teammates, constantly tested and re-tested, with the best medical staff millionaires could afford on hand. Still, he contracted the virus, and was pulled from the final game of the World-freakin’-Series. If he can catch it in that situation, better be sure you can, too. Even a cardboard cutout knows that.

With a bit of luck, and sticking to sensible precautions, by the time the Dodgers are hoisting the championship trophy this coming October (wink), we’ll all be able to share a few high-fives and a couple of hugs.

We’ve gotten this far. Don’t leave the game early. You might miss something good.

The Dodgers unveil a long-awaited new placard on their wall of titles.

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