It was a local tragedy turned into a national curiosity and the surreal nature of it all was not lost on anyone who was there.
Five years ago on Wednesday, the stands at Camden Yards were empty and the press box was standing room only. The Orioles played the Chicago White Sox in the ominous quiet that reigned in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray unrest.
Now referred to by many as the “No-fans Game,” it was the first time that two big league teams played each other during the regular season without a single fan in attendance, but it might not be the last. Major League Baseball has been making contingency plans for the eventual restart of the 2020 season, and the idea of playing for weeks in empty stadiums remains front and center.
Former Orioles manager Buck Showalter was a central figure in the strange game that was played April 29, 2015. He understands why it was necessary to keep the gates locked that day, but he’s not convinced that baseball nor the public would be well-served by taking the same approach during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t see how they do it,’’ he said in a recent telephone interview. “That’s just me, but at the end of the day, what have you got if you do it?”
Two no-fan plans have been floated as MLB and the players union seeks to recoup as much of the delayed season as possible. The first one that leaked called for the season to start entirely in Arizona, with all 30 teams quarantined in hotels and games played at the state’s 10 spring training ballparks and Chase Field. The other would keep teams at their spring facilities in both Florida and Arizona and temporarily realign the National and American Leagues so that no interstate air travel would be necessary.
“It’s going to be hard,’’ Showalter said. “I understand them trying to do something. I know Phoenix in the summer – I’ve lived there – and it’s so hot you aren’t playing outside. Florida? You could do it if you’re just trying to get the product out there, but I don’t know how you do that with the players, quarantining them and the bus drivers and the practicality of it.”
Major League Baseball is desperate to find a way to play as many games as possible in the hope of salvaging enough of the schedule to maintain competitive integrity and set the stage for a legitimate postseason. No matter what happens, this year figures to be a financial disaster for all the major professional sports, but there is $3 billion in television revenue at stake and MLB could still recoup some of it with fanless games.
Whether that would be good for the long-term health of the sport remains an open question. Showalter, who has managed teams in every market size, is skeptical.
“We’ve already made it too easy to watch the game at home and I don’t blame [the fans],’’ he said. “You can work an eight-hour day. You’ve got it recorded. You can go home, heat up a corn dog or whatever, go down to the basement and watch a three-hour game in 45 minutes if you want to fast forward to the good parts. Or you can go down to Baltimore and roll the dice. That’s where we are.”
Indeed, big-time pro and college sports already were feeling the impact of the giant Costco-cheap flat screen televisions on attendance. That has been particularly true for the Orioles, who have seen attendance drop at Oriole Park in every season since that strange April afternoon in 2015.
“I’m not excited about it being put on in spring training venues,’’ Showalter said. “I just know what spring training presentation is. Everything’s a different entity. Spring training baseball. Regular-season baseball. Postseason baseball. Now, you’re taking a product and completely changing the way you’re presenting it.
“When you’re watching something and there’s a full crowd, you’re thinking that this is something you really want to see. People at home got excited about watching Delmon Young hit that double with the bases loaded against the Tigers in the playoffs because they could tell how excited the people in the stadium were. Now, you’re sitting there and how do you get excited about a play with nobody in the stands?”
Showalter saw what that looked like up close and understood why it was necessary five years ago. His thoughtful answer to a difficult postgame question about the unrest and racial division in Baltimore remains one of the most memorable moments of a very unusual day.
The spring camp options might be attractive for short-term economic reasons, but the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and the safety of the fans and all the necessary local support personnel isn’t the only public health consideration.
“I think the players are going to be an issue here, too,’’ Showalter said. “How do you tell some guy whose wife is expecting that you have to kiss her goodbye and see her in 40 days. I don’t know how you quarantine everybody and the logistics of that. All that has to happen is for one player to get sick and the whole thing has to shut down again. What happens if you start it and you have to stop it again?”