Wild Card: Life in a white man's sport

As the light rail zips down Howard Street, the sight of downtown gets me riled up with resentment. I'm headed toward Oriole Park at Camden Yards, but the stadium is not just a stadium but rather a grand token of appreciation for white flight, redlining, blockbusting, and zero tolerance policy that shapes the stratum for black people in Baltimore. I'm on my way to an Orioles game against the Houston Astros—my first one in a while and, hopefully, a refreshing experience.

Living in Baltimore and heading anywhere near downtown, more often than not, I feel out of place, looking for people who look like me. Just as "thug" is coded language for "black" (or as Carl Stokes famously said during the Baltimore Uprising on live television, code for "nigger") then "O's fan" and all of its qualifiers have become synonymous with "white." Last year, "fans" were disgruntled as the Orioles played the White Sox in an empty stadium and moved a three game series to Florida's Tropicana Field while Baltimore responded to an ongoing history of police violence, mourning the loss of Freddie Gray. I can't help but think about how the violence was precipitated by unruly baseball fans before a Saturday game with the Red Sox. Who really goes to Orioles games like that in the first place? The image of four Orioles fans in a gold Dodge Stratus riding past a small anti-police brutality rally on Pratt Street screaming "Fuck Freddie Gray!" last July matters more to me than the lead the Orioles would hold in the first few innings of this game.

The Orioles organization responded to the Baltimore Uprising much better than its fans. Days after the uprising got violent, Orioles manager Buck Showalter responded to a question about what "advice" he would have "for young black males." Showalter offered up a thoughtful and direct answer: "I've never been black, okay?" he said, adding, "I don't know. I can't put myself there. I've never faced the challenges that they face." He went on: "So I understand the emotion, but I can't – it's a pet peeve of mine when someone says, 'Well, I know what they're feeling. Why don't they do this? Why doesn't somebody do that?' You have never been black, okay? So just slow down a little bit."

John Angelos, executive vice president of the Baltimore Orioles, also made a statement tying the unrest to a lack of economic opportunity, police brutality, and divestment: "It is absolutely incumbent upon the government and public-private partnerships to create equal opportunities for all communities and sub-communities throughout the cities of this country and throughout the entire country and in order for the united states to continue to hold itself out as the greatest country in the world… in order for it to hold itself out as a country that stands for democracy, equal opportunity, civil and human rights it needs to provide equal economic opportunity for all people and if the system is failing some of us, then it's failing all of us."

Very little of this has rubbed off on Orioles fans. I got to the light rail stop out in Lutherville, a somewhat controled experiment in experiencing a trip to the game as those from outside the city experience it. The stop recalls the build-up to the Preakness—another event wherein white Baltimoreans and white Baltimore County-ites traverse the city and briefly occupy it. People are meeting up with friends, applying sunscreen, taking duck lip selfies, and speeding through the parking lot with reckless abandon in those small cars with the lawn mower engines—the ones that have the big-ass spoiler on the back that doesn't make the car any cooler. And just like with the Preakness, public transportation for white people coming out in droves appears to be free. People bypass the ticket booth and head to the platform and no one seems to care. It feels like a weird country club—all that is missing is the sound of wine pouring and glasses clinking together. Certain train cars are already standing room only, a sea of Orioles paraphernalia, khaki cargo pants, and pleated shorts with creases sharp enough to easily cut through my thickening discomfort as faces orange with O's fever revel in their light rail soirée. People who otherwise would have seats any other time—mostly black people who are going to work or are headed home after work—are relegated to sitting on the steps in favor of fans.

During his tenure as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer led the charge in changing the underpinnings of the city. Manufacturing was becoming a thing of the past and city planners and politicians set out to turn Baltimore into a tourist attraction with the development of the Inner Harbor. The construction of Oriole Park, complete with a shiny new light rail system, commenced in the early '90s, and since then Baltimore has focused, more and more, on courting tourists and out-of-towners and ignoring the people who live in the city.

Inside the park, the mood is festive and money is flowing as people drift in and out of fan shops on Eutaw Street. It feels weird though. Walking through the stadium I look for people who look like me. I see a few every now and again and my eyes give them special consideration. The majority of other black people I notice are those who are working: lugging large carts of ice, selling overpriced beer, selling overpriced water, selling programs. I'm still not sure as to what makes a bratwurst any different from a damn hot dog, but those are expensive too. Black people who came to watch the game seem to be few and far between. This may be a result of a declining interest in the sport or that only 8 percent of major leaguers are black. Either way, the dynamic isn't reflective of the city's population, but rather its social order.

I walk into the section with a gang of fans who seem to be around my age. They all sport the standard "All Lives Matter Junior League" weekend-wear starter pack uniform: reverse printed Bass Pro Shop shirts, chino shorts, backward two-toned caps, and slouched Nike socks complementing a rustic pair of low-top Vans. As I approach my section some fans stare at me with a guilty conscience, knowing damn well they are sitting in my seat. They hop over to their row careful enough not to scuff their sneakers, complaining to each other about the new view. I don't stand for the national anthem. I sit down equipped with a water sip and french fry dip. I notice an older woman staring at me in disgust out of the corner of my eye. Her face, beet red, makes her patriotism seem a little more historically accurate to me. She's upset because I'm not standing for a song, flag, and country that is inherently racist. She doesn't know that upward social mobility for men and women who look like me is at a premium; that each day, each experience, this baseball game is a challenge on the psyche. She's probably out grilling a bratwurst over a burning Colin Kaepernick jersey somewhere right now.

The Orioles take the field and quickly give up a run. People start to complain as if there weren't eight more innings left to play. I'm paranoid, feeling that a drunken fan would throw a racial slur, a beer can, or a bar stool at me at any moment. Adam Jones ties the game with the first of a string of home runs in the bottom half of the inning. As he rounds the bases his presence on the team—and in professional baseball—becomes a political act. I rejoice in his feat of black excellence. He's one of only about 70 or so black players in the league and has become a perennial All-Star and Gold Glove winner. I wear Adam Jones' jersey, much like people who have bought Colin Kaepernick's jersey—with a sense of pride because he has carved out a lane in a sport that is "a white man's sport," as Jones said in September when he was asked about Kaepernick's protest. "Kaepernick is not disrespecting the military. He's not disrespecting people who they're fighting. What he's doing is showing that he doesn't like the social injustice that the flag represents," Jones added.

Last week, the Orioles lost to the Toronto Blue Jays in the wild card, ending their season, a disappointment for sure. But after watching the game, what stuck with me were moments of racism displayed by Blue Jays fans. A beer can was thrown at Orioles left fielder Hyun Soo Kim as he caught a fly ball, and he also had to endure racial slurs during the game. Adam Jones was also taunted during the game. In case it wasn't obvious, racism is not just for Orioles fans. Baltimore is my city and the Orioles are supposed to be my team, right? Rarely do I feel like they're my team though, especially when I'm at the stadium.

The Orioles lose to the Astros 15-8. I get back on the light rail and endure a more sullen, drunken kind of white privilege all around me. A middle-aged woman is straddled on who I assume to be her husband. A group of teenage white boys are putting too much emphasis on terms made popular by black culture while talking shit about some dudes who went to Loyola Blakefield. I start to think. Part of me wishes that Adam Jones had the might of 10 Josh Gibsons. That each of his 220-plus home runs as an Oriole soar out of Camden Yards and land at the feet of black children in Baltimore who aren't exposed to the sport. I want for black children who love sports but prefer lower quartiles over lateral quickness to one day become statisticians and calculate advanced metrics for a living. I want black ownership, managerial roles, and players in sports and other realms to reach levels that would make Ty Cobb, Kenesaw Landis, Marge Schott, Tom Yawkey, and Ben Chapman roll over in their graves. I want for black kids to have the opportunities to be and do whatever they want to the point where their presence transcends the perils of tokenism, so that everywhere feels like home.

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