Even with Camden Yards closed to public, fans found way to support O's

The scene at Camden Yards was surreal Wednesday, like something out of the “Twilight Zone.”

Kweisi Mfume found himself among a group of Orioles fans peering through the bars of Camden Yards, attempting to peek in on the first major league game without any paying crowd in baseball history.

The former U.S. Congressman and NAACP president has spent recent days trying to help bring a torn city together after unrest following the death of Freddie Gray. A national television interview brought him toward the ballpark, but he stayed to mingle with a group of about 50 Orioles fans who cheered the team to an 8-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox in front of a paid crowd of zero fans inside the ballpark.

The gates to Camden Yards were locked. The Eutaw Street corridor beyond the right field fence — full of hustle and bustle during every game day — was bare. In deference to the pervasive unease affecting Baltimore following the death of Gray, a 25-year-old African-American city resident who died in police custody earlier this month, and the ensuing 10 p.m. city curfew, game time was moved to 2:05 p.m. and not a single fan was allowed through the gates.

Fans were forced to take it in from an obstructed view through the sealed gates and balconies at the Hilton Baltimore.

An Orioles season-ticket holder since the mid-1980s, Mfume recounted his first baseball game as a kid, going to Memorial Stadium in the Orioles' first season in 1954. He said he remembers seeing the franchise's first black player, left-hander Jehosie "Jay" Heard, on the field despite having to sit in the colored section of the stadium.

"It's surreal," Mfume said of the scene outside Camden Yards. "It's kind of eerie, especially when you juxtapose it to what's happening on these corners that I've just left all over the city. [Orioles executive vice president] John Angelos was right on the money, in my opinion, when he said [in a tweet that] a baseball game, to paraphrase, pales in comparison to the hurt and the pain and the anguish in what's going on in our city. The fact that they canceled two of those [games], I was not surprised."

Baseball did resume in Baltimore on Wednesday afternoon – even if the public was not invited – an idea that allowed authorities to allocate resources, including police officers and national guard troops, to be stationed elsewhere in the city.

That didn't prevent Les Bowman and Larry Marsh from making the three-hour drive to Baltimore from their home in Chincoteague, Va. They felt drawn to the city and wanted to help in the cleanup, filling two bags of trash along the way.

By 11 a.m., they were among the first fans claiming a spot, a group that was less than 10 people at first that gathered behind the ballpark gates beyond left-center field, the clearest view of the playing field.

"It's a bummer," Bowman, 28, said of the game being closed to the public. "But at the same time, I completely understand. Even though we don't live here, we love the city. We actually stick up for the city back home. The city gets a bad rep back home. We're constantly sticking up for it. Really, we wanted just to help the city. We wanted to do something. We know there's not a whole lot we can do. It's got to come from a lot higher up. But we have to start working together, get past this and put Baltimore back in the forefront."

Inside the park, this was baseball as it no doubt would be played in "The Twilight Zone."

Few were lucky enough to be inside the gates – nearly 100 press members, a handful of major league scouts and the occasional Orioles staffer – so it wasn't hard to hear what anybody was saying. Infield chatter could be heard clearly and the cheering from fans gathered outside the gates on Camden Street sounded like shouting in a church.

"There wasn't anything normal about today," Orioles reliever Tommy Hunter said after the game, having watched from the bullpen. "Maybe the silence had something to do with it. You could hear the umpire's call from home, about 423 feet away. … It was interesting."

Even without fans in the stands, a handful of distinctive Camden Yards touches endured. Public address announcer Ryan Wagner dutifully announced each batter. The prerecorded "Star-Spangled Banner" included a muffled "O" roar. And "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" was played during the seventh-inning stretch.

There were none of the video board extras. There was no hot-dog race, no crab version of three-card Monte.

The fans, however, were heard. As the group behind the left-center field gates grew, they chanted, "Let's Go, O's" — even as armored police vehicles drove behind them along Camden Street.

Garrett Baldwin, who lives nearby in the Ridgely's Delight neighborhood, booked a room at the Hilton Baltimore across the street and watched the game from the hotel's fourth-floor deck. He shouted loudly, cheering on Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who looked not much larger than an ant from this distance.

Still, it was baseball, and that's what Baldwin said Baltimore needed.

"Just to be able to look in and see this, it's tragic, but it's historic," he said. "Baseball's always been a constant in this town. It's a great reminder of everything that is possible. This city really was united around the Orioles in October. It was kind of a glimmer of hope and I think this city will continuously unite around this team again as we continue to move past this very difficult and volatile social and political process."

Chris Pitro of Charles Village and Paul Dorin of Canton reserved Room 567 in the Hilton, paying $219 for a suite that had a balcony looking into the ballpark. As they watched from the balcony and a hotel window that provided an unobstructed view, they had the game playing on TV and the radio broadcast blaring. They invited about five friends and cheered the Orioles from the balcony.

"They said it was no fans, but fans are watching wherever they can like us," said Pitro, 36.

Steve Orzol, 53, of Joppa, walked along Camden Street holding a largest sign with a likeness of the Orioles' cartoon bird, but with a tear falling from its eye. He called Wednesday a sad day for Baltimore, saying that he tweeted at Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, pleading that she do something to open the gates for the game.

"I told her she needs to do the right thing," Orzol said. "You have to let the fans in the game somehow. You have to talk to Major League Baseball, whatever, because you're staining Baltimore right now. You can do the right thing and we can look like a great city. If you open up these gates, show the country that it's not as bad as you think Baltimore is. What is this going to do to tourism?"

Asked whether he believed Wednesday's game should have been played, Mfume said he believes that judgment should be made by each individual.

"But what I sense is that there was an effort here — reading between the lines of many of the players — to give people for two or three hours a sense of normalcy during a very disruptive situation," Mfume said. "It by no means takes the attention away from the real issue. The real issue is justice for the Gray family."

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