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One year later, remembering an Orioles game without fans at Camden Yards

On April 29, 2015, the Orioles played in front of an empty Camden Yards with unrest enveloping Baltimore.

One year ago today, the Orioles hosted the first Major League Baseball game played with no fans in attendance, and the sight of an empty Camden Yards drew national attention in part because of the rarity of the moment and the extreme tension that forced it.

Outside the locked gates of Camden Yards, the unrest throughout the city stemming from the death of Freddie Gray turned Baltimore on its head and had already forced the postponement of the first two games of the Orioles' series against the Chicago White Sox, rescheduled to be played as a doubleheader the following month.

But in order to get the third game of the series in, the decision was made to play behind closed doors, as much to reallocate resources — police officers and National Guard troops — that would have been at the ballpark to other parts of the city as it was for the public safety of fans during a tense time.

Four days earlier, protests became violent outside Camden Yards, and as the Orioles went into extra innings against the Boston Red Sox, the ballpark was briefly under lockdown for fear of the public's safety. Oriole Park, one of the city's most recognizable jewels, became a focal point of the unrest that began in the north part of the city and ultimately led to 20 injured police officers, 235 arrests and countless city businesses destroyed.

The Orioles wrestled with the dilemma of how to continue their season while their city was in disarray. Other than playing that game without fans, the team relocated the following three-game weekend home series against the Tampa Bay Rays to Tropicana Field. 

At the time, the Orioles' decision to play behind locked gates drew a mixed response. Some fans wanted the games to be played as they normally would, but others knew the turmoil and hurt being felt throughout the city couldn't be ignored.   

"You know when you’re in that kind of confluence of events, all you can really do is sort of take it in and you sort of ask yourself, ‘How do I respond?’ And I thought the Orioles’ response was very appropriate," said Baltimorean Kweisi Mfume, a former Maryland congressman and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who was among the group of fans who peered through the left-center-field gates of Camden Yards to watch the game from outside the park.

"And I think it served to remind all of it, that while the game we all love was scheduled to take place in our city and all over the country, in Baltimore, there was a different and much more sober and somber nature about what was going on. I really believe that [managing partner] Peter [G. Angelos] did the right thing in deciding the game would be played but not in front of crowds because you don’t want to be cheering while your city is burning."  

As much as the Orioles didn't want to be the focus, the no-fans game — which the Orioles won, 8-2 — became that, representing an attempt to get back to some level of normalcy, even though few aspects of the game were normal.

"You had to be so sensitive to everything else that was going on, and you realize that your words carry a lot of weight at that time and the whole country was watching," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "And you want to be respectful to so many different sides of things that you really weren't an expert on."

Orioles players hoped playing the game, which was still televised locally on MASN, would help the healing.

"It was such a weird situation because there was so much going on around the city and I think so much pain and suffering that could be helped by just turning on the TV," Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. "It was a hard time for the city and I think as players, I thought we really hoped we could be a distraction at that point. It's still tough to think about it all now. I don't think too many of us really go down that road too often because there's a lot of pain there and it's not something pleasant to think about."

Still, insides both clubhouses, players wondered whether the game should be played. The clubhouse television sets are always a focus, but on those three days in late April, players from both teams watched as the city unraveled.

"The reason we are here is because of the fans and when they're not present, baseball is a little different and it's kind of tough to play," White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton said. "And then when you think about everything that was going on outside the stadium, your heart just went out to the city and how they were dealing with everything. You're in the outfield thinking, 'Should we really be playing baseball right now? Is that really the greater thing we should be doing?' And I definitely think a lot of guys questioned that at the time."

Surreal atmosphere

The White Sox arrived into a Baltimore they had never imagined. Eaton remembers looking out his hotel window and seeing smoke emerge from the Baltimore skyline. One afternoon he went across the street for lunch and saw protesters getting arrested.

Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, who has been active in the Baltimore community for several years, offered a positive voice before the game, saying what likely needed to be said from a high-profile athlete who has a forum in Baltimore and beyond. Jones joined several other local leaders in urging that the protests for Gray — a 25-year-old West Baltimore man who suffered a severe spinal cord injury during his arrest and died in the hospital a week later — stay peaceful.

"I say to the youth, your frustration is warranted," said Jones, who declined an interview for this story. "The actions, I don't think are acceptable. If you come from where they come from, you understand, but ruining the community that you have to live in is never the answer. … The last 72 hours, I think in this city, have been tumultuous to say the least. We've seen good, we've seen bad, we've seen ugly. … The big message is stay strong, Baltimore. Stay safe. Continue to be the great city that I've known to love over the last eight years I've been here."

Mfume said Jones' words -- as well as those from Showalter -- were powerful, because so many people in the community look up to their sports heroes. 

"In many respects it reminded us that while we were in the midst of the uprising and in the midst of great turmoil," Mfume said, "that had not been lost on the team or on the sport for that matter, because all of baseball kind of stopped to reflect on the fact that something different was happening in Baltimore over that three- or four-day period, and that the Orioles recognized that and responded to it in a way that had never been responded to for any event."

Because the city enacted a 10 p.m. curfew, the game was moved to the early afternoon, and fans were urged not to come to the ballpark. But it didn't stop group of fans from gathering behind the left-center-field fences of Camden Yards, peering through the gates to watch the game. Fans weren't going to be denied. Even though they couldn't watch the game from inside the ballpark, some purchased hotel rooms overlooking the field.

A group of about a dozen outside the park two hours before the game swelled to a few hundred, a group whose loud cheers served as a contrast to the near silence inside the park. Conversations from the dugouts could be heard in the press box, and the broadcasters' voices carried down onto the field.

Eaton called stepping into the batter's box against Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez for the first at-bat of the game in front of a seating bowl full of empty green seats a surreal moment.

"I thought I underestimated it," Eaton said of opening the game. "To be honest with you, when I first went into it I didn't think it would be a big deal. There was almost this half-asleep feel because there was no energy. There were no people there. … There was no music. … It was almost like worse than a back-field spring training game.

"The city was fresh on everyone's minds. When you step into that batter's box and there was no nothing, you had the realization that it was a big deal that there was nobody here. We've got to play because this is our job, but there's a reason why there's nobody here. It's very somber in that sense. … You've just got a lot of emotions running through your mind. As baseball players, as teams, we feed off energy and when there's nothing there, it's a very surreal and weird moment that I'll never forget but I kind of wish I could."

When Davis launched a three-run homer in the first inning to give the Orioles a 4-0 lead, he heard cheering from the crowd beyond the left-center-field gates as he rounded the bases.

"I think we [served as a distraction]," Davis said. "I'm not really sure how. I really wasn't sure what it was going to look like. One of the funniest things I remember was hitting a home run in the first inning and [hearing] all the fans standing right outside the gate. And I thought, 'That's really what this whole thing is about.' It was such a unique situation to be in and I think as a group of guys, I was really proud about the way we handled it and tried to take the positive about it. I think that was big."

The game went quickly. It took just 2 hours, 3 minutes to complete, and the Orioles used a six-run first inning to cruise to an 8-2 win. Eaton conceded the White Sox were adversely affected by the strangeness of it all.

"We got our butts kicked," he said. "I think everyone just kind of wanted to put it in the back of our minds as a team when we left there."

After the game

One of the most poignant moments of the day might have happened after the game, when Baltimorean Kendall Hilton asked Showalter a question in his postgame news conference.

Hilton, 26, was credentialed to cover first game of the series, which was postponed, for his sports website, Fan-I Sports. He returned for the no-fans game, but only had press box access. He made his way into Showalter's news conference anyway.

"I knew walking into that moment, this is a historical moment," Hilton said. "This is a moment that we're going to be talking about 100 years from now, so take full advantage. That was mainly what was going through my head. Just take full advantage of whatever opportunity presents itself. Just take advantage of it. And that's why I asked him that question."

Hilton: Buck, I'm a resident from here. I grew up in, like, the neighborhoods that everything is happening. What advice would you give to the young black males in the city? Because you're well respected in that area.

Showalter: Well, you know, I talk to people — a lot of times, you hear people try to weigh in on things that they really don't know anything about. I tell guys all the time when they talk about — you know, I've never been black, OK? So I don't know. You know, I can't put myself there. I've never been, you know, faced the challenges that they face, OK? So I understand the emotion. … It's a pet peeve of mine when somebody says, 'Well, you know, I know what they're feeling. Why don't they do this? Why don't somebody do that?' You have never been black, OK? So just slow down a little bit.

But you know, I try not to get involved in something that I don't know about, but I do know that it's something that is very passionate. Something that I am, with my upbringing, that it bothers me and it bothers everybody else, but you know, I just, can we — I understand we've made quite a statement as a city, some good, some bad. But now let's get on with taking the statement we've made and creating a positive. … I want to be a rallying force for our city, you know? And doesn't mean necessarily playing good baseball. … I want us to learn from some stuff that's going on, on both sides of it. And none of us — you know, I could talk about it for hours, but you know, that's how I feel about it.

"He gave me a real, genuine answer," Hilton said. "Looked me eye to eye. Looked me in my face the whole time. It was a great moment for me, just for him to answer that question. … As soon as he saw me and I was asking the question, I could see in his eyes that he had something to say. … Buck's a very intelligent man. He understands. He understands everything and he understood what that moment meant. Like I said, I'm just happy he answered — for both sides. The funny thing about his answer, it wasn't just for one side of the fence or the other side. He gave responses for both sides. It was just real."

Asked about that question this week, Showalter stood by his succinct words one year later.

"I was real proud of everything, the whole organization," Showalter said. "There's a fine line between giving it the respect it's due and helping a lot of people — our fans — get through it. I don't feel any differently now than some of the things I said at the time. That was the whole thing. When you go through something like that, you just want to make sure you think about what you say, and a year from now I want to look back and say you still feel that way."

One year later, memories of that day still resonate and will continue to, not just because of the atypical natural in which the no-fans game was played, but also because of the words and actions that tried to push the city forward through a most difficult time. 

"Growing up as a kid, there was always somebody at the game," Mfume said. "Whether you were on the sandlot or in the Pee Wee league or got to play Pony ball, you just always expected it, and certainly at the major league level, that would always be the case. I remember looking with my face pressed against the steel bars of that gate and thinking that there were a lot of lessons here that people will walk away with for years to come about what happens when a city explodes and why it’s important for everything that claims that city, including its sports teams, to respond appropriately and try to seek a level of understanding.

"Often times sports teams don’t have to understand things," he added. "You go out, you suit up and you play, but there was an understanding by the team and a strong statement that was made that I think a year later helps us all recognize that in the midst of all that. It’s easy now to say the team did the right thing. But over those two or three days, you just didn’t know what to think. Everybody wanted an answer and everybody wanted to heal the city."

eencina@baltsun.com
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Baltimore Sun reporter Jonas Shaffer contributed to this article.

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