BALTIMORE — Accompanied by the punchlines and photos on social media was a sadness as a recording of the national anthem played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Wednesday afternoon.
As if the sight of an empty ballpark moments before the start of an Orioles game wasn’t strange enough, it had just hit me that we wouldn’t hear the customary “O!” that we’ve come to expect at any major sporting event in Baltimore over the years. Out-of-towners don’t get it and even some within the community don’t care for the practice, but there are few things more “Baltimore” than our own Star-Spangled Banner trademark you’ll even hear when fans follow the Orioles or Ravens on the road.
It was just the latest reminder of how far from ideal the concept of playing a baseball game without fans truly was, but that’s when I heard the faint but audible “O!” from a few dozen fans standing beyond the left-center gate. The sound warmed the heart in a week filled with much tension and sadness in the city of Baltimore, and it suddenly made more sense for the Orioles to be playing a game at home before embarking on what will now be a nine-game road trip.
“Oh, they were heard,” said a smiling Buck Showalter when asked about those fans cheering from afar during an 8-2 win over the Chicago White Sox.
Of course, the Orioles returning to the field is of little consequence compared to the real problems our city is facing and will continue to deal with in the coming hours, days, and weeks. The decision not to allocate the law-enforcement officials required for a regular game was a wise one, but the quiet atmosphere was a reminder of just how important fans are to the product.
As one of the select few able to watch the game in person, I enjoyed the previously-unheard sounds of Jimmy Paredes sliding into third base or first base coach Wayne Kirby calling for Delmon Young to run out a popup, but the atmosphere reminded of a junior varsity baseball game without the pings of aluminum bats. It may have been a day that made major league history, but we can only hope it never happens again as we look ahead to the return of both the Orioles and fans to Camden Yards on May 11.
“It’s something that we hopefully don’t take for granted,” said catcher Caleb Joseph, who jokingly pretended to high-five fans and sign autographs before the game. “Days like today definitely remind you if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have jobs. Hopefully, everything can be resolved as quickly as possible.”
A game being played without any fans wasn’t what anyone truly wanted, but if it represented baby steps toward some normalcy, we’ll take it. After watching so many parts of the city burn on Monday night, just seeing baseball being played at Camden Yards again was movement in the right direction.
For those watching on television or listening on the radio on a weekday afternoon, the surreal game at least provided a temporary distraction.
“They’re always watching. You all know that,” said center fielder Adam Jones, acknowledging more fans viewing on television than those attending any game under regular circumstances. “Cameras are always on. It was good to come out and get six [runs] in the first [and] get a stronghold off a good pitcher.”
The day was helped by the Orioles rolling over starter Jeff Samardzija and the White Sox to win their third consecutive game. While players were quick to note the insignificance of winning a baseball game in the city’s current climate, you still sensed their purpose of wanting to do something positive for fans despite their inability to attend the game.
Of course, the run of baseball-related distractions and sacrifice isn’t over for the Orioles as they’ll now play a “home” series — with home uniforms and all — against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg this weekend. But leaving town on a winning note helps.
“You tried to stay focused on the competition and us trying to get where we want to be at the end of the season,” Showalter said. “But I also talked to [players] about the people who are going to be sitting around our city watching this game. How many things have really gone on normal here in the last few days in our society?”
Yes, the perception of playing in an empty stadium was less than appealing, but it beat the alternative of canceling a third consecutive game at an abandoned Camden Yards. If it served as even a few minutes of leisure from the tension that currently exists in our city, the unorthodox measure was worth it.
There are much bigger issues at work in Baltimore — ones that won’t be solved overnight — but to hear cheers from those fans standing beyond the gates was a reminder of just how important something so unimportant can be. It isn’t a coincidence that we’ve occasionally heard the “Seven Nation Army” chants from protesters over the last couple days, either.
Sports have brought and will continue to bring us together, which is why I look forward to once again seeing a packed Camden Yards — hopefully as early as May 11.
“The last 72 hours I think in this city have been tumultuous, to say the least,” 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’s hurting, and a city that needs its heads 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.”
One day at a time.
As unusual and less than perfect Wednesday’s game was, it was comforting to have a diversion.
It was good to hear that familiar “O!” in the distance.