BALTIMORE – At 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, just more than 90 minutes before the Baltimore Orioles were to host the Chicago White Sox in a baseball game both staged in unprecedented circumstances and of unusual importance, the James Brown classic “I Feel Good” pumped through the public address system at Camden Yards. The citizens of this city, not allowed into the ballpark for this rescheduled game, couldn’t hear it, and the song was punctuated by the crack of the White Sox’s bats as they took pregame swings.
What will happen at Camden Yards at 2:05 p.m. – a Major League Baseball game with no fans in the stands – has never happened before, and the Orioles spent much of their pregame time trying to grapple with both what that would feel like and what it meant. None of this, in the wake of the widespread rioting following the death of an African American man who suffered injuries in an incident with police, was easy.
“The last 72 hours, I think, in this city have been tumultuous to say the least,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. “We’ve seen good. We’ve seen bad. We’ve seen ugly. We’ve seen our games canceled, postponed, relocated. A lot of families relocated. It’s a city that is hurting, and a city that needs its heads of the city to stand up, step up, and help the ones that are hurting.
“It’s not an easy time right now for anybody. It doesn’t matter what race you are. It’s a tough time for the city of Baltimore.”
The violence following the death of Freddie Gray, which ramped up Monday night, led to the first two games of this series to be postponed, and with a 10 p.m. curfew in the city through early next week, Wednesday’s game was moved from a scheduled 7:05 p.m. start to the afternoon. The decision to keep fans out – which has never been made in baseball history – was reached because Orioles officials did not want to draw law enforcement resources away from areas of the city that need it. A scheduled weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays was moved to St. Petersburg, Fla.
“Obviously, it’s uncharted territory,” Manager Buck Showalter said. “Nobody’s got experience at it.”
So the pregame discussion ranged from the grave to the trivial. Players came to the ballpark both Monday, when the game was postponed less than an hour before the scheduled first pitch, and Tuesday for a workout. On Tuesday, armored National Guard vehicles filled the parking lots normally reserved for fans. Such a situation forced players – so single-minded during the season – to serve as social commentators because they knew the eyes of a city would be on them.
“The last few days have really been eye-opening to me,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. “… Just to see the frustration, the anger, the emotion of the city over the last few days has kind of been shocking to me. We’ve talked a lot about the protests and the rioting and the looting, and I said this the other day: I support productive protests and people getting their point across in a safe manner. It’s unfortunate that it’s escalated to what it has.”
Wednesday’s game, though, will count, and baseball players are above all else creatures of habit. So they wondered about the little things, too: Will they have to watch what they say to umpires because there will be no din behind which to hide? Will the scoreboard show replays?
“Is there going to be a national anthem today because there’s nobody there?” catcher Caleb Joseph said. “Is there going to be walk-up music for us in Tampa? … You kind of wonder about all those things. I guess we’ll find out.”
Jones, the Orioles’ most prominent African American player, spoke passionately during a packed news conference in the hours leading up to the game. Having grown up in inner city San Diego, he has long said he relates to the young people in Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods. Over the past several days, he has concentrated on keeping his young family safe. But he also said he listened to Baltimoreans on the front lines of the protests, struggling with the violence.
“I’ve said to the youth, ‘Your frustration is warranted. It’s understandable, understood,’” Jones said. “The actions, I don’t think, are acceptable. But if you have come from where they come from, you understand.
“But I just think that ruining the community that you have to live in is never the answer, due to the fact that you’re going to have to wake up in three or four days and just go right back to those convenience stores, go right back to all those stores. I think that, this is their cry. And obviously, this isn’t a cry that is acceptable, but this is their cry. And therefore we have to understand it. They need hugs. They need love. They need support.”
Quietly, some Orioles expressed frustration that they would go to Tampa for the weekend, but the Rays would not flip-flop a series later in the year to play in Baltimore. Rather, the Orioles will serve as the “home” team at Tropicana Field, wearing white pants and batting last. But there was also an overall feeling of understanding.
“To say that something we’re going to go through on a baseball field in the big leagues is difficult is really insensitive to everything else that’s going on,” Showalter said.
So what awaits is the game, and whatever healing it provides – even with an audience detached.
“Sports unite communities, and to have fans, it would be awesome so it could give them three hours of distraction away from what’s really going on,” Jones said. “And that’s what sports brings. It’s a small distraction to the real world. I think the people of Baltimore need that.
“But at the same time, the safety of those people is very important to the Orioles, to Major League Baseball and to the city of Baltimore. … It’s gonna be weird, but it’s understandable.”