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With coronavirus keeping fans out, Orioles faithful forced to celebrate ‘holiday’ of home opener in different ways

Heather Linington-Noble, a season ticket holder and passionate fan, will not be inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the home opener or the shortened season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Linington-Noble says it is a delicate balance between her excitement for the season to begin and players and others connected to the game risking their health.
Heather Linington-Noble, a season ticket holder and passionate fan, will not be inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the home opener or the shortened season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Linington-Noble says it is a delicate balance between her excitement for the season to begin and players and others connected to the game risking their health. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

When Lisa Krysiak attended an Orioles-hosted blood drive at Camden Yards in late May, she savored her time around the ballpark. She recognized she likely wouldn’t be back at any point during the summer.

That likelihood increased further this week with news of an outbreak of the coronavirus among the Miami Marlins’ player roster and coaching staff, postponing the Orioles’ series in Miami and scrambling both teams’ schedules. The Marlins, with 15 players testing positive for the virus, have had their season postponed through at least this week, while the Orioles, instead of hosting Miami for two games, will play their home opener against the New York Yankees on Wednesday.

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In a season that already had been delayed four months and shortened to 60 games, the complications further guarantee that fans will not attend games during this campaign, however long it lasts. As infections continue to rise throughout the country, the Orioles and other clubs are unlikely to welcome fans into the ballpark throughout their respective home slates, leaving fans such as Krysiak unable to attend games and enjoy traditions such as the Orioles’ home opener.

“Opening Day is the second-best day of the year behind Christmas in my family,” said Krysiak, 31, of Bel Air. “Opening Day is a holiday in Baltimore, and this year, obviously, it won’t be.”

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But perspective isn’t lost amid the pandemic. Heather Linington-Noble, 35, of Canton said that she wants to support the players because they are putting themselves at risk by playing and traveling, as evidenced by the Marlins’ outbreak. Krysiak said despite her excitement for baseball’s return, she feels “extremely conflicted.”

“If things go wrong this year and if people get sick and die, you don’t come back from that,” Krysiak said.

The Orioles as an organization are keeping the virus on the forefront of their minds, as well. The Orioles’ traditional home opener celebration, featuring players being introduced as they run down an orange carpet in the outfield, won’t be on display this year, said Greg Bader, the organization’s senior vice president of administration and experience.

Bader noted the number of people required to put together such a ceremony and the inherent risks associated with that in the middle of a pandemic, though the club announced Tuesday it will still have the “10th man” as part of the festivities. Bader spoke with the Sun before the Marlins’ outbreak altered Baltimore’s schedule.

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“We’ll be introducing players maybe different than fans are used to, but it’s still going to be Opening Day,” Bader said. “It’s going to feel like Opening Day, but times are different, so this ceremony’s going to look a little different.”

But the Orioles will continue to hunt for ways to make the day and the season special for fans, Bader said. In the middle of a rebuild, the club sees its gem of a ballpark and the experience of being there as its strongest selling points to fans. With those elements unavailable to them this season, the organization has had to adapt. Through what they’re calling “O’s at Home,” the Orioles will provide “a series of features and concepts that when woven together we hope can mimic as best as possible the ballpark experience at home,” Bader said.

Examples of those efforts include ceremonial first pitches and national anthem performances done digitally and remotely, with Johns Hopkins nurse Mahala Thomas’ pre-recorded first pitch played Wednesday. The Crab Shuffle and Hot Dog Race, two iconic forms of between-inning entertainment, will be featured on the occasional Mid-Atlantic Sports Network television broadcast.

With teams streaming in fake crowd noise to replicate fans in empty ballparks, Orioles fans can use MLB’s Ballpark app to “cheer” for the team by tapping certain buttons. The Oriole Park sound operators can raise the volume of the crowd noise accordingly.

“If we’re not going to have a crowd, I think it’s the next best thing,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think it’s a positive thing. We’d obviously love to have a crowd, but to add a little bit of atmosphere from a noise standpoint, I think that’s been well received from our players.”

The app will also feature Birdland Trivia and a Poll of the Game, Bader said. In an effort to create interactions between fans, as would happen during a night at the ballpark, the Orioles will from time to time host video conference calls for Birdland Members, those who take part in the team’s rewards-based, season-ticket program.

The Orioles also plan to post the occasional ballpark food recipe online, allowing fans to replicate meals from Camden Yards staples such as Boog’s BBQ at home.

“Part of what we’re reminding fans of is that summer in Birdland is still summer in Birdland,” Bader said. “You’re just celebrating it differently.

“It’s not a perfect situation for any fan. They want to be at the ballpark. They want to be present. When they cheer, they want that cheer to be heard. But virtually, we’re trying to create a similar situation where they feel connected, they feel like they can be heard and know that we’re listening.”

That should help Orioles fans trying to have a semblance of Camden Yards at home. Linington-Noble said that she’s been at all but one home opener since 2006, and the inability to attend this year won’t stop her and her husband, Drew, from making an experience of it. For the Orioles’ season opener Friday in Boston, they put on their orange and ate hot dogs and soft pretzels for a meal of traditional ballpark foods.

Although it doesn’t replace the “community” feeling of a night in Oriole Park, “we want to try to do something that the experience isn’t just sitting on the sofa watching TV in our pajamas,” she said.

Ken Katz, 57, of Columbia figures that he has attended the Orioles’ home opener for at least 20 straight years. He laughed at memories of pulling his children, Jordan and Lyndsay, out of school early to go to the games. He knows Wednesday will be different without the imagery of players running down the orange carpet in front of a sellout crowd, especially those who haven’t been part of a home opener in Baltimore before.

“You’re missing part of the spectacle,” Katz said. “That person doesn’t get to experience that, being welcomed in front of a crowd of 40,000 people. That has got to be a big letdown.”

It’s better than the alternative of not playing at all, which grows into a greater possibility with every case and outbreak throughout the league. The Orioles have been one of the organizations most strongly advocating for the wearing of masks and proper social distancing, the avenues considered most effective in preventing the spread of the virus.

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As conversations around racial injustice have risen nationwide after the late May police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, they’ve been vocal in that area, as well. Before the national anthem on Opening Day in Boston, every member of the team took a knee. During the anthem, they all stood and locked arms. The organization intends to show its support for racial equality throughout the season while continuing to promote proper approaches to curbing the virus, making a statement to fans as they watch from home.

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Before Wednesday’s home opener, the Orioles will have a moment of silence for victims of racial injustice and those who have died of COVID-19.

“The world has changed in the last four months,” Bader said. “The Orioles feel strongly that we have a platform to speak about our values and what we believe in. We believe that wearing a mask and practicing social distancing and doing your part to stop the spread is absolutely essential, and we’re going to tell people that and remind people of that and encourage people to do that. Likewise, we feel very strongly that Black lives matter. We are not going to shy away from the belief that all people are equal, no life matters more than another life, and we’re going to use our platform to remind people of that.

“Hopefully, the return of baseball to some degree will help create a bit of a sense of normalcy for people and in some ways an escape but also serve to remind people that we’re all in this together, we’re all a team, and we’ll get through these really, really challenging times.”

But baseball’s hopeful role of serving as a distraction to the pandemic will be challenged if situations such as the Marlins’ continue to arise.

“We are not guaranteed to have it the entire year,” Krysiak said. “I’m going to take it as long as I can get.”

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