In an old news clip dug up for “All In With Chris Hayes,” then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke said this of the newly opened Oriole Park at Camden Yards: “The most important thing is that it really has attracted people into the area that see that cities are an inviting place and not just massive shelters for the poor.”
Studies have come out since that say taxpayer-funded stadiums are a raw deal for cities. Over the long run, they are bad investments that often don’t bring the lucrative economic activity that’s promised. And as former Sun sports writer and current ESPN staffer Kevin Van Valkenburg notes, the beautiful retro-style brick building was funded, in part, by a portion of the money spent on lottery tickets, often purchased by poor people.
But much of the renewal and growth that has taken place in Baltimore over the last two-plus decades can be linked to Oriole Park at Camden Yards bringing people back downtown. As Schmoke more or less said, we’re talking specifically about suburban white people, and the ones who’ve migrated back to urban living have benefited most from the influx of cash. Places like Canton and Hampden have flourished with new development while neighborhoods like Sandtown and Middle East remain impoverished. Harbor East has sprung up from basically nothing while blocks of homes in East and West Baltimore are left to crumble and decay.
Nowhere was that disparity more clear than outside Camden Yards on Saturday, April 25, when marchers protesting the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man whose spine was severed in police custody, clashed with fans drinking beers before an Orioles-Red Sox game. It was a skirmish between the privileged and the not-privileged playing out in real time. Protesters and police were in a standoff just beyond the stadium gates throughout the game, forcing the team to hold fans inside after the last out.
By Monday, as riots broke out near Mondawmin Mall and Sandtown-Winchester, where Gray lived and was arrested, and windows of several downtown businesses were smashed, the Orioles decided to postpone their series opener against the White Sox. Tuesday brought cleanup and community but also more turmoil as riot cops used pepper spray and tear gas to clear out protesters for a citywide 10 p.m. curfew. That day’s game was postponed too.
Faced with the uncompromising nature of the Major League Baseball schedule and the volatile atmosphere in Baltimore, the team made a decision that would make history: They would play the first professional baseball game without a paying crowd. The game was scheduled for 2:05 p.m., and its only attendees would be some members of the Orioles staff, a press box full of journalists, and a few major league scouts.
Much of downtown had been eerily quiet following the unrest, and this was particularly true at Oriole Park, a place that’s usually buzzing with loud cheers, vendors hawking beer and snacks, and the usual sound of pops and cracks associated with baseball. It was just last October the city reverberated with a thunderous roar after Delmon Young hit a go-head double against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series.
Today, complete silence. The stretch of bars of Pickles, The Bullpen, and Sliders, site of a truly ugly scene just days before, was a ghost town. A small crowd gathered outside the left field gate to stand and watch. Some had gone to a party deck at the nearby Hilton or rented out rooms with balconies to take in the action.
Just before first pitch, the teams took their places for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ Instead of the usual vocal performance, a brisk instrumental recording was played.
And then, baseball. The game had a bit of a “Field of Dreams” quality to it: Here were some of the best players in the entire world on one field, and it felt like they were putting on an exhibition just for you.
The optics of the empty seating bowl were surreal and slightly depressing, a reminder of the events that brought us to this historic point. But the sounds were spectacular. Home plate umpire Jerry Layne’s strike calls were clearly heard from the press box. The ball popped in the glove louder. The crack of the bat was clear and crisp. You could hear the applause from the benches after good plays. Orioles righty Ubaldo Jimenez made quick work of the White Sox in the first inning, striking out two. After the craziness of the week, the immersive sounds and ebb and flow of a baseball game were just the catharsis I needed.
In the bottom of the first, there was a beautiful sight that you can only find in baseball, and it couldn’t be altered by the backdrop of empty seats. With two men on and the Orioles up 1-0, first baseman Chris Davis hit a towering home run down the right field line. There was an audible “Oh!” in the press box as the ball ascended its parabolic arc into the sky and settled on Eutaw Street in front of the old B&O Warehouse. By the time the inning was over, it was 6-0 Orioles, much to the delight of the crowd, which had since grown, outside the stadium.
Jimenez continued to cruise along and the Orioles’ bats never relented. It was exactly the way the team has to play if they are to repeat as A.L. East champions. The righty pitched his seventh and final inning when the small crowd of staff and press was again jolted with the odd setting in front of them: The stadium DJ played ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ and John Denver’s ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ during the seventh-inning stretch to no one in particular. Truly bizarre.
Closer Zach Britton came on in the ninth to close out the game, giving up a leadoff single and then getting the next three hitters 1-2-3. Final score: 8-2 Orioles. The players shook hands on the field to no cheers and returned to the locker room.
If there were any disheartening metaphors to pull from the team having to lockdown its stadium and then close off one of its games for safety concerns, fans could at least take something from the words and actions from the organization.
After Saturday’s finish, comments from John Angelos, son of principal owner Peter Angelos and COO of the team, on the relative unimportance of a game and people across the country “losing economic civil and legal rights” went viral. He was later interviewed by Hayes and Gwen Ifill; in the first interview, Angelos said the lost wages for the stadium concession workers would be taken care of, but he didn’t elaborate on how.
In Buck Showalter’s post-game press conference after the 8-2 win, a young African-American reporter, who said he was from the affected areas, asked the manager what advice he would give to young black males in the city, noting Showalter was “well respected” in that part of town. His response cut to the core of white privilege. “I’ve never been black, OK? So I can’t put myself there. I’ve never faced the challenges that they face, OK?” he said, then added, “It’s a pet peeve of mine when somebody 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, OK? So just slow down a little bit.”
He also said: “We’ve made quite a statement as a city, some good, some bad. But now let’s get on with taking the statement we’ve made and creating a positive. We talk to players, I want to be a rallying force for our city, and it doesn’t mean necessarily playing good baseball. It just means everything we can do . . . There are some things I don’t want to be normal, you know what I mean? I don’t. I want us to learn from some stuff that’s gone on, on both sides of it.”
But the most profound words came from the team’s best player, center fielder Adam Jones, an African-American who grew up in inner-city San Diego. Here are Jones’ remarks as transcribed by Dave Zirin of The Nation:
“There’s been a lot of good protesting, there have been a lot of people standing up for the rights that they have . . . The youth are hurting . . . It can look like no one’s fighting for you but there are people like myself. I say to the youth, your frustration is warranted. It’s understandable, understood. The actions I don’t think are acceptable but if you come from where they come from, you understand . . . This is their cry . . . They need hugs. They need love. They need support.
“I feel the pain of these kids. Let’s remember I grew up on similar tracks as them . . . It’s just not easy seeing a community [where] you are trying to affect change in, seeing these kind of things, but it’s understandable because these kids are hurt. And these kids have seen the pain in their parents’ eyes, the pain in their grandparents’ eyes over decades and this is their way of speaking on behalf of their parents and behalf of their grandparents and people who have been hurt.”
And Jones walks the walk too. He has helped support two youth centers in the city and is at work on a third. He’s donated equipment to 30 inner-city teams as part of a program trying to bring baseball back to city fields. His work with the Y of Central Maryland earned him a Key to the City, presented by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
It’s easy to write off professional athletes as overpaid and over-pampered, but that ignores that many choose to make their lives in the cities they play in and invest in the surrounding communities. With great empathy and understanding, the Orioles have shown that much more is at stake beyond what happens for them on the diamond.
They played a game in an empty stadium because they felt it was their only choice, that it was the right thing for the safety of Baltimore. When the team returns to Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 11 to face the Toronto Blue Jays, people from across the city and region will return to the seats and join together to cheer as a community. During the ALDS, an entire section of seats in the right field bleachers was donated to the Boys & Girls Club, and it would be great for those kids to be there again. There should be students from schools in Sandtown-Winchester and Penn-North too. And, hopefully, the players and coaches will make good on Showalter’s promise to go out in the community and affect change in a way that doesn’t show up in the standings. Up until now, they’ve given us little reason to doubt that they will.