Although it took just two hours and was never in doubt, the Orioles’ game on April 29, 2015, against the Chicago White Sox that was played in front of an empty stadium at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is hard to forget.
There were star outfielder Adam Jones’ healing words to the city before the game. The chuckles from the field as the television booth commentary echoed around the stadium. The din of fans cheering outside the stadium’s locked gates.
Five years later, though, those involved remember the tension engulfing the city around the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who succumbed to injuries suffered while in police custody, and the resulting unrest around the city far more clearly than any of that.
"I just felt for the city, and I wanted things to kind of get back to normal, and it was a difficult time for everybody,” said former Orioles closer Zack Britton, who pitched that afternoon. "I felt like baseball was completely meaningless, and that’s why the game itself, I just wanted it to be over with. I don’t really have any good memories or anything about it. I just felt like it was something that we had to get done.”
“It was so much uncharted territory,” former Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
The game itself was the first closed-admission game in major league history, something that hasn’t been revisited since but might be this summer during the coronavirus pandemic. But its circumstances were far different than anything that might be replicated by the virus.
Unrest in the city boiled over around an Orioles game against the Boston Red Sox earlier that weekend, with the stadium temporarily put on lockdown because of protests April 25, 2015. Two days later, Gray’s funeral on April 27 brought about hundreds of arrests, property damage and troubling scenes all over the city.
The Orioles ultimately postponed two games against Chicago that week before making the decision to play that third game against the White Sox without fans, allowing police officers who normally attend the game for security to work in the city.
That weekend’s scheduled home series against the Tampa Bay Rays was instead moved to the Rays’ home stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida.
In the lead-up to the empty stadium game, everyone associated with the team wondered what baseball’s place in it all was. Britton said that Showalter’s advice to the players was to do more listening than talking and really try to learn about different perspectives.
Britton, now a reliever for the New York Yankees, said that what he remembered most was the players in the clubhouse talking about their diverse upbringings and learning that some had to deal with the same issues protesters hoped to raise awareness of that week. With no games for two days and thus no baseball to talk about, they spent more time than ever learning about each other’s backgrounds than any other time he could recall.
When the team finally convened to play Wednesday, it was Jones who spoke on their behalf, saying that he was “not far from these kids, so I understand all the things they are going through."
“I say to the youth, your frustration is warranted,” Jones, who now plays for the Orix Buffaloes of Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan, said at the time. “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. … This is their cry. This isn’t a cry that is acceptable, but this is their cry, and therefore we have to understand it."
“5 years ago #FreddyGray never forget,” Jones tweeted on Monday night.
Outside the stadium, on the city streets where so much unfolded in the preceding days — 20 injured police officers, 235 arrests and several businesses destroyed — then-city council member Brandon Scott saw a parallel between the game and the communities he was working to heal.
“They were on this big stage, but no one was watching,” said Scott, now the city council president and a candidate for mayor. “No one was looking at you, because no one was there. And that’s symbolic to how it was to grow up and be a young kid in West Baltimore, Northwest Baltimore, East Baltimore. I thought that juxtaposition was fitting — that no one was watching all of these people on this big stage.”
Scott said that he game also served to highlight some of what was happening in the city at the time for a wider audience, something that those inside and outside the ballpark that day acknowledge meant more than a baseball game.
Jones said at the time that he wished fans could be there to provide a way for the community to come together over ballpark food and drinks and cheer on a common point of pride like the Orioles.
As it were, it proved to be that kind of distraction from afar.
“People were going through a lot of trauma and a lot of stress, and I thought for some people — I know for my grandfather, that was a way for him to get away for at least a couple hours from what’s going on in the city,” Scott said. “Some people needed that.”
The job of keeping it an escape without ignoring the circumstances that kept the ballpark closed fell on longtime Orioles television broadcaster Gary Thorne. He didn’t anticipate that every home run call or rise in the volume of his voice would echo onto the field for all to hear. He did, however, understand the importance of presenting a game that received national attention in a delicate way.
“You’d like to say it’s just another game, but it isn’t,” he said. “It was unique, and there was a lot of anxiety and tension in the city. You wanted to appropriately recognize that in the tone that you’re presenting the game, but at the same time, one of the reasons the game was being played was to give people a chance to do something other than hear about what’s going on around town. That was the primary concern. How do you present this so that it’s appropriate both for the game and for the city?”
The game itself proved to be quite simple. The Orioles batted around in the first inning and scored six runs — three on a Chris Davis home run. That proved all the offense that Ubaldo Jiménez, Kevin Gausman and Britton would need to help them to an 8-2 win in two hours, three minutes, before an announced crowd of zero.
Before the game, catcher Caleb Joseph walked out to the bullpen for warmups high-fiving imaginary fans and signing fake autographs down the first-base line. Britton said that bullpen coach Dom Chiti had to advise the relievers not to cheer so loudly in the first inning because the other team’s relief pitchers were right there.
And then there were Thorne’s home run calls, with his shout of “Goodbye, home run!” projecting to the players on the field as Davis’ ball went out. The rest was remarkable only in how regular it all felt.
“Our guys were really ready to play and were really professional about it,” Showalter said. “It was a pretty good game for us. We played pretty crisp. And it also hit me that it lasted two hours and [three minutes]. I told the guys on the competition committee, ‘If you want to see how to speed up the game, watch that ballgame,’ because there were a lot of things [without fans] – no walkup music, no ‘Clap your hands, you’re supposed to make noise.’ ”
“Refreshing, maybe, to look back on it and the game play itself,” Britton said.
Nobody really had that feeling at the time, though. The White Sox players and staff had been in Baltimore through two days of unrest and uncertainty, and were ready to get out of town. The Orioles had a day off that Thursday before flying to Florida to play as the home team at the Rays’ Tropicana Field.
The thought as they left the city and its unrest behind, Thorne said, was universal.
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“It was, ‘Thank god it’s over, and I hope we never have to do this again,'” Thorne said.