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In return to Camden Yards, team and fans agree 'it's just nice to be home'

Technically, they don't have homecoming games in baseball, but the Orioles had been away so long -- and under such strange circumstances -- that the concept was hard to resist.

Technically, they don't have homecoming games in baseball, but the Orioles had been away so long — and under such strange circumstances — that the concept was hard to resist.

So, the Orioles took the field in brand-new "Baltimore" home jerseys and five randomly-selected fans from Baltimore City threw out five ceremonial first pitches before the start of Monday night's game against the Toronto Blue Jays.

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That was the official acknowledgement by the ballclub that the boys were back in town and the franchise was here to do its part to help Baltimore return to a sense of normalcy after being compelled to hold their April 29 game in an empty Oriole Park and move a three-game home series against the Tampa Bay Rays to Florida.

There was also an unofficial ballpark promotion that was spawned on social media — a grassroots attempt to get fans to flock downtown for the game and patronize the local businesses that depend on revenue from the Camden Yards sports complex. It was called "ReOpening Day," because of the long layoff and the fact that the original home opener this year was also against the Blue Jays.

"We never expected this to solve everything,'' said organizer Sam Angell, a native Baltimorean who works in Philadelphia, "but we've seen a lot of people who really care about the Orioles and care about the city. Hopefully, this helps with that."

Angell envisioned Monday as a latter-day "Fantastic Fans Night," harkening back to the strange and wonderful evening at Memorial Stadium in 1988 when the ballpark was packed to capacity with fans welcoming home a tailspinning Orioles team that had just set a major league record by losing its first 21 games.

Oriole Park was far from full -- the announced attendance was 20,468 -- but the crowd was larger and louder than normal for a Monday night in early May.

Buck Showalter said before the game that he was not surprised by the grassroots groundswell, just proud of the organization for the responsible way it responded to the civil unrest and proud of the fans for taking it upon themselves to welcome the team back from its lengthy road trip.

"Instead of putting an orange carpet from center field [like on Opening Day], we should have an orange carpet at the gates,'' he said. "It's their Opening Day as much as anything. I hope it's the start of us playing better."

It was. The Orioles wasted little time giving the fans something to cheer about. Manny Machado led off the bottom of the first inning with a home run and Chris Davis followed three batters later with a two-run moonshot to give starter Ubaldo Jimenez a quick three-run lead.

Chris and Cheryl McFadden, of Owings Mills, said they would have shown up on Monday night regardless of what had gone on the past few weeks, but they applauded the effort by Angell and his social media friends to try and make the game about something bigger than baseball.

"You've got to have faith in Baltimore,'' Chris said. "I understand why they did it. I think it's okay. I think we would have been here no matter what. If they had let me in for the game where nobody was here, I would have been here. I didn't feel threatened. I just think [the rioting] was a bunch of people who had no sense of what they were doing."

The fact that the Orioles drew a bigger crowd than usual isn't going to fix the problems that plague Baltimore's inner city neighborhoods, but Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said Monday that sports can serve as a unifying force in a diverse community.

"Sports has always been that bridge,'' he said.

For some, going to the game was about life getting back to normal, even though there are plenty of issues that are still unsettled in the wake of the Freddie Gray tragedy.

"I don't know if it's back to normal,'' said Carla Barker, of Bel Air. "I think it's headed towards normalcy, but there have got to be some things that have to change. People are upset, rightly so, and [on] both sides of the issue. For one or two bad actions, the whole police department should not get such a black eye, but I think people are welcoming the scrutiny to clear it up and if there are some bad people who did something not right, they should be held accountable."

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Donnie and Caiti Berry, of Lansdowne, attended the game with friend Lauren Goodrich, of Linthicum, after hearing about "ReOpening Day" on social media. They came with a message emblazoned on professionally-made Oriole orange T-Shirts that read "One Baltimore."

"We just wanted to come and support the city and support the team after everything that has gone on the past couple weeks,'' Donnie Berry said. "I just felt like it was something important to do for the city."

The Orioles were all in with the high-minded civic-unity theme, but they also were just happy to be back for an extended homestand after playing such a strange and uneven schedule over the past two weeks.

"It's nice that the fans want to do that for us and for the city,'' said pitcher Zach Britton. "It's just nice to be home and playing in front of the home crowd and be comfortable and try to get back in a nice little rhythm. I think that's kind of what we need right now. Kind of reset a little bit and get back to playing baseball the way that we know we can."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.

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