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Kendall Hilton recalls his poignant exchange with Buck Showalter after Orioles' no-fans game

One year ago, Kendall Hilton of Baltimore was credentialed to cover the Orioles' April 27 game against the visiting Chicago White Sox for his website, Fan-I Sports. In the wake of unrest in the city stemming from the death of Freddie Gray, the game was postponed, as was the next day's.

So Hilton returned two days later, for the Orioles' series finale against the White Sox in an empty Camden Yards. He was credentialed only for press-box access, but after an 8-2 Orioles win, made his way to Buck Showalter's postgame news conference. His lone question produced a sound bite that became as resonant as the images of an empty ballpark.

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On Wednesday, Hilton, 26, recounted his memories of that week. They have been edited for context and clarity.

I was just trying to get credentials for whatever I could get. The Orioles were kind enough to allow me into their ballpark [on April 27]. … I was there covering the game, just going to write an article about the game. I typically just try to keep up with the O's, not only as a fan but as a journalist — a sports journalist — also. I was just going to do regular sport journalism.

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And I got there early. I try to be prompt and get prepared for the game and everything. And then when I got there, I was so overwhelmed with excitement, and then, next thing I know, the TV's on and I see kids throwing rocks at police. So all that excitement that I had just instantly turned into, like, "Wow, what's going on?" This can't be happening right now, because I grew up five minutes from there, from the riots. I grew right up the road on Park Heights [Avenue] and Cold Spring [Lane]. Just to see all that happening in an area that I'm very familiar with, it was surreal and a wild experience.

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.

Right after they called the game, I drove down there and just tried to help stop everything and clean up and do whatever I could to help out the community. … It was crazy, because by the time I got down there, the crowd, the masses, had moved. They already were on the east side. When I got to North Avenue and Fulton [Avenue] and that area around there, it was like, "Wow." It was crazy. It looked like a war zone. It's funny, because I always tell people, if you've never been to Baltimore City before and you see how it looked [during the riots], you would be like, "Oh, my God, this is where people live?" But as soon as you clean it up, as soon as you get the debris and everything from the riot, it still looks like a war zone.

The night before [the April 29 game], I'm sitting with my buddy. I'm just like, "I don't know what to expect from this. It's going to be nobody there."

When I got there … I'm like, "There's no fans here." … The whole time waiting, it was a surreal feeling being in the ballpark, watching them do batting practice, and no one's in there.

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Once the game started, it was very gratifying. I always say it was baseball at its purest form. You heard the pitchers. You heard the ump. You heard the bats. It was just baseball, and the game went quick.

At first, I tried to make that moment last as long as I could. I walked around the stadium a little bit because I knew I couldn't go down there [to the postgame news conference]. But then I was just like, "Man, let me just take this chance." Hopped on the elevator. Once I got off the elevator, the usher was like, "Well, let me see your credentials." I just showed him. He's like, "All right, go ahead through." So then they were like, "The interview room's right here." And I walked in. No one said anything to me. It was funny, because a couple of guys from the [Associated Press] I was talking to during the game in the press box, they were telling me, "Come on, come up front." I was like, "No, it's my first pro game." I'm like, "Nah, nah, I'm cool." I was in the back. I was waiting for Buck to come in so I could work my way up.

Once Buck came in, I still didn't know what I was going to ask him. I worked my way up to the front and in the corner. I was on the right side. If you're facing Buck, I was on the right side of the room. I heard the first couple of questions, and they were just strictly baseball questions. I'm thinking, like, "We're in the stadium full of nobody, and all y'all can talk about right now is baseball? With what's going on outside of this stadium?"

I knew walking into that moment, this is a historical moment. 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.

At first, I thought he wasn't going to answer. I thought he was kind of going to sidestep it and give him some politically correct answer.

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, but I don't, you know, I can't — 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 — we talk to players — I want to be a rallying force for our city, you know? And doesn't mean necessarily playing good baseball. You know, it just means, you know, everything we can do to — there are some things I don't want to be normal, you know what I mean? I don't [want some things to be normal].

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.

Hilton: Thank you.

He gave me a real, genuine answer. 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.

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It was wild, because right after he answered, he finished, he moved on to the next question, [the Orioles officials at the news conference] caught on: "You got to go." "I understand." But I got my moment. That's all I needed.

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I definitely think if it was just a regular 50-year-old white journalist, I think [Showalter] would've given a very different answer. 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.

Right after I left, I got on the elevator and just gave a loud scream. Just joy. Because I knew. I knew what just happened. ... I got my moment, basically. I took advantage of that opportunity.

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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