Thursday, April 30, 2015

Because A Vision Softly Creeping: The Baltimore Orioles, The Chicago White Sox, and the Hollowed Hall of Camden Yards

The crack of the bat. The whip of a pitch into the catcher's mitt. These are the common sounds of a ballgame romanticized for over a century. The purity of these noises is always sullied by the third and most obvious sound of a ball park- the roar of the crowd. Thursday afternoon, there was no crowd. There was no beer vendor bellowing out whatever overpriced lager he happens to carry. There were no aromas of hot dogs, popcorn or peanuts. But there was a game. The Chicago White Sox visited the Baltimore Orioles amid civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore police. Major League Baseball needed for the game to be played, and the best option for player and public safety was for the contest to go on in front of a completely empty house. For the first time at baseball's highest level, no fans would be allowed in to the ballpark.

Following postponements of the last two games, the decision was being forced by the teams, city, and the league. Two games, though tough, could be made up later in the season, but three would be near impossible. So on Wednesday evening, the verdict was handed down by the Commissioner's office. The White Sox and Orioles would play MLB's first zero-attendance game. While the overall mood in the city was somber, the game brought a reprieve by way of baseball's steadfast means of distraction.

The players and broadcast teams made the best of the situation. A few Orioles were seen pantomiming signing autographs for fans who were not there. At one point, the home play by play team acted like they were calling a golf tournament, with voices dimmed and excitement muted. Chris Davis went on with his tradition of tossing game balls into the stands at the ends of each inning, despite their inevitable clunk onto the vacant seats. The game itself was pretty much decided in the first inning. Adam Jones hit a sacrifice fly to right field, scoring Alejandro De Aza. With two outs and two on, Chris Davis hammered his fifth home run of the season to right, putting the birds up 4-0 quickly. White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija had been soundly defeated just two outs into the game. He would stay in for another four innings, giving up a total of eight runs, seven of them charged to his record. Had this been a normal day, this game would have faded into obscurity along with hundreds like it in a baseball season.

There was a small crowd gathered beyond the outfield walls, dressed in team apparel. During the broadcast, their faint cheers could be heard following any play of consequence. A television camera had centered on them much as it would have if they were in their assigned seats. Still, despite being locked out of Camden Yards, baseball fans found a way to make their presence known. I was listening to the game from my office in Indianapolis. The ominous lack of crowd chatter was eerie if not off-putting. I had been to many baseball games in which attendance was low enough to hear the players yelling to each other, but this was different all together. Over the radio stream, I could hear players holding conversations at normal volume levels. I could hear them cheer on their teammates after big plays. I could hear individual hand claps and the sound of a baseball bat being dropped after a successful swing. It was like hearing the game in a way I hadn't experienced before in my more than twenty years of obsession.

After the game, many of the players spoke on how strange it was to have played in front of an empty Camden Yards. For almost every Major Leaguer, the experience of having someone cheering (or booing) in the stands has been present their entire career. Even back to their Little League or junior camp days, family, friends, or scouts were always there. Thursday was an anomaly, but it was an average game that will stick with the players on each side for the rest of their careers.

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