After Riots, Orioles Play To An Empty Stadium In Baltimore
The first ever Major League Baseball game without fans, turned Camden Yards into a surreal deserted landscape.
BALTIMORE — On the street side of the towering iron fence, maybe a hundred yards from the Orioles' bullpen inside the gates, stood Orioles fan Les Bowman with his younger brother.
It was about two hours before the start of the game and Bowman had no chance of getting inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Wednesday afternoon. That was no problem for Bowman, who drove nearly three hours from the coast of Virginia that morning to help with the clean-up effort in parts of Baltimore that sorely needed it.
This was a different sort of gameday, unprecedented in American professional sports history, and Bowman just wanted to witness as much of it as possible. And from this spot outside of the stadium, Bowman and others had as unobstructed a view into the stadium as possible from the surrounding streets.
"The way I see it," Bowman said, "I have the best seat in the house."
It was from there where Bowman and a few dozen fans ultimately watched the game, the first in Major League Baseball history without people in the stands [official paid attendance: zero]. They got to root, at times surprisingly loudly, for the home team in an 8-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
"This was our message to let people know that we support our city," said Brandon Coles, a 29-year-old resident of nearby Elkridge, Maryland. "We're ready to start putting the city back on its feet."
Commissioner Rob Manfred said the decision to play the game in an empty stadium was in the "best interests of fan safety and the deployment of city resources" following riots connected to the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who suffered a major spinal cord injury while in Baltimore police custody. It was a sign of the depth of the turmoil that gripped the city over the past few days managed to puncture the relatively sanitized bubble of professional sports.
Looming over the decision to play in an empty Camden Yards were the events of Saturday, when thousands of fans were temporarily forced to remain inside the stadium following protests that turned destructive just outside. Games on Monday and Tuesday were canceled and a scheduled weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays was subsequently moved to Florida.
"It's not going to be anywhere near the typical sales day for a game," said Craig Ziegenhein, manager of the popular Pickles Pub across the street from the stadium."I just want it to go back to normal. I want baseball back in Baltimore."
So Wednesday's game went off as promised, with only players, team and stadium staff, and members of the media allowed inside the gates of the stadium.
The streets and lots surrounding the stadium were a mostly deserted landscape, with none of the vendors, festivities, and fans that have come to typify game days since the Orioles started winning regularly again a couple years ago.
There was nowhere to get a hot dog or buy an Orioles T-shirt or to listen to jaunty ballpark tunes, even on a picturesque spring day in Baltimore that featured sunny skies and 70-degree temperatures.
"It's a beautiful day for a ballgame," said Linda Butler, who came with her husband John to redeem their tickets before rushing home to watch on TV. "Can you imagine how much the city has lost by not having these games? This has been a terrible impact to the city."
A couple hours later, inside those iron gates, the Orioles raced to an early lead in their victory over the White Sox. Baltimore scored six first-inning runs, which definitely would have been something to cheer about had fans been inside the park.
It was a surreal scene, a sea of empty forest-green seats against the backdrop of Camden Yards.
The Orioles chose a taped version of the national anthem rather than bringing in a singer. On-field chatter between the players was audible throughout the stadium. The thwack of the bat hitting the ball, and the ball hitting a glove, could be heard around the park. After the game, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he could hear the bullpen phone — which is on the other side of the field — ringing from the dugout.
Every now and again, that hearty group of Orioles fans beyond the left-center field fence could be heard chanting, "Let's Go O's! Let's Go O's!"
In all, the game seemed much further away than the two miles it actually was from the West Baltimore neighborhood where demonstrators marched and occasionally clashed with police on consecutive nights.
Once upon a time, Camden Yards had been built as an escape from the blight that had come to define Baltimore in the post-manufacturing collapse of the '70s and '80s. It represented hope for a city desperately in need of it, the possible key to urban revitalization and economic rebirth.
That rebirth never came , with even fewer businesses in the neighborhoods around Camden Yards than they had in 1998. Bloomberg reported that the ballpark and the nearby NFL stadium required state and local debt service of more than $24 million in 2014.
In the wake of one of the most unusual days in Baltimore and baseball history, players and team leaders tried to come to grips with the events that preceded Wednesday.
"It was important because what the city is going through is hard," said Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, who had a big day in the win. "I know that a lot of people were watching us and supporting us."
During the postgame interview with Showalter, a black teenager from West Baltimore — who secured a credential for the game — asked the Orioles manager what advice he had for the black teenagers whose anger may have fueled the protests over the past few days.
Showalter paused. "You hear people try to weigh in on things they don't really know about," he said. "I've never been black, OK? So I don't know. … I want to learn from things that have gone on."
Soon after, one of the Orioles' staff members tapped the teen on the shoulder and asked for his credential. Within minutes, the young man was escorted out of the interview room.