Ask anyone who stood outside the gates of Camden Yards, or on the roof deck of the Hilton across the street, or poured beers behind a South Paca Street bar to describe Wednesday’s game between the Orioles and the Chicago White Sox, and the answer will be, almost universally, “It’s weird.”
Baseball has a long history in Baltimore, but fans never expected their latest milestone would be hosting what historians believe is the first game in Major League Baseball to be played in front of a recorded crowd of zero. Less than three miles from the epicenter of the outrage that has shut down swaths of this city’s daily bustle, two MLB teams are playing a routine game in which the only spectators are the 92 accredited journalists in the press box, far more than the number that should be covering a late-April game. But this is what happens when strife like that uncorked by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who was mortally wounded while in police custody, interferes with professional sports.
“It is strange,” says Terri Biggins, a nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center, which is just a few blocks from the stadium. “It’s got to be hard to start a rally.”
Biggins, standing on a plaza off Camden Street that normally would be full of sidewalk vendors, is one of a few dozen Orioles die-hards who stepped out of work—or had the day off thanks to the city’s response to the protests over Gray’s death—clinging to the stadium’s locked gates and hoping for a glimpse of the scoreboard or fly ball. She says she’s been going to Orioles games since the old days at Memorial Stadium and is glad that after two cancellations, her team is finally back on the field, even if she can’t see it.
“I think it was the right thing to do to play like this,” she says.
Brendan Hurson, a public defender who says he makes 15 to 20 games a season, disagrees. He’s carrying a sign that, if he was inside the park, might be picked up by MASN’s cameras: “Don’t forget Freddie Gray,” with the o’s replaced by the Orioles’ stylized lettering. Instead, Hurson’s placard is fodder for CNN, Fox News, and the half-dozen other news cameras stationed outside the gate.
“It’s embarrassing that we’re out here,” he says. “The entire Inner Harbor is surrounded by soldiers. The reason we’re out here is because the police murdered Freddie Gray. If they’re going to play they should open it to the public. Play it in front of human beings.”
Hurson suggests that had the stadium opened its gates to the public, some of the revenue could have been donated to organizations that work to repair the communities damaged by this week’s riots.
But the view from Camden is lousy. The best seat “in the house” is actually a terrace on the fourth floor of the Hilton across the street. About a dozen guests and hotel workers are up there getting a clear—if distant—view of the game when Baltimore first baseman Chris Jones belts a three-run home run as part of a six-run first inning. Maybe the ball lands on the Eutaw Street concourse that’s usually thick with spectators and tourists, but is empty and locked up today. Again, the weirdness dominates, along with a much greater number of journalists than should be covering this point in the season. More TV cameras. Print hacks. Mashable has two people here, interviewing put-out Orioles fans on Periscope, the new live-streaming app.
“We see this view all the time, but it’s full of thousands of spectators,” says Alexis Wilkins, who works for a vendor at the Hilton.
The Hilton’s roof deck and balconies are always busy on game days, but there’s always a crowd ahead of them. Wilkins, who had tickets to one of this weekend’s games against the Tampa Bay Rays until MLB moved the series to Florida, agrees with Hurson that the public should have been let in.
“It’s almost bittersweet,” she says. “Events over the past few days show how much we love our team and love Baltimore.”
With Baltimore opening up a big lead on the White Sox, there are two things on the roof-deck contingent’s minds: that the Orioles win, but without any significant player achievements like a no-hitter (made impossible by Avisail Garcia’s second-inning single), and the Baltimore Police Department’s report on Gray’s death to prosecutors, which is due Friday.
“It’s hard to make progress toward justice,” Wilkins says. “Tension has been building for years. The disparity in wealth is so extreme. Go to the west side of Baltimore; a couple miles away is so different.”
Up on the fifth floor, Chris Petro and a bunch of his friends are enjoying the view from two adjoining rooms. For $219 per room per night—possibly cheaper than eight baseball tickets—Petro and company also have a decent view of the game considering the circumstances (plus a lot of visits from journalists who were too late to score one of Oriole Park’s press-box seats).
“Many of us, our work was cancelled,” says Petro, a sound engineer at nearby Rams Head Live, which nixed every show this week after officials implemented a 10 PM citywide curfew.
Petro also takes a dim view of the scene in West Baltimore. “In a word: stupid,” he says. “I think everyone’s missing the point. It should be peaceful on behalf of the family of the kid who was lost. There’s people destroying our city and I can’t work. I think we have enough security around.”
Besides the Baltimore Police Department, the affected parts of the city are also swelling with the presence of state troopers, 2,000 National Guardsmen, and several hundred officers from police departments around the mid-Atlantic, including DC. Below the hotel, Camden Street is nearly empty during the game, save the occasional law-enforcement vehicle creeping along.
One thing about watching the game from a hotel balcony is that it makes it tough to tell who’s at the plate. The Orioles score on another home run in the fifth inning. “Was that Adam Jones?” someone says. “Davis,” another voice barks out. Turns out it was third-baseman Manny Machado, belting his fourth dinger of the season.
Petro says he makes it to about 40 or 50 games a year, and he usually treats the hotel begrudgingly. Its construction in 2008 blocked the stadium stands’ view of some of the Inner Harbor’s historic warehouses.
“When I’m in there,” he says, pointing to the empty upper deck, “I’m one of the thousands saying this is an eyesore.” There is one upside to the en-suite experience though: Petro can bring his dog, a black lab-border collie mix named Sara Sue.
But the oddest place to watch todays game might be from one of the many bars across from the stadium.
“It’s a weird day,” says Rob Nitkowski, a bartender at Pickles Pub, across South Paca Street. Today was supposed to be a night game, but even for an afternoon game in the middle of the week, business is down about 90 percent, saved only by the phalanx of journalists who couldn’t get into the stadium.
Chris Riehl, a tour guide who lives in South Baltimore, backs up Nitkowski’s assessment of the barroom. Journalists have been hounding him and his fellow Orioles fans all day. In the span of a few hours, he’s been interviewed by the New York Times; SiriusXM’s dedicated MLB channel; television stations from Baltimore, DC, and Columbus, Ohio; New England Cable News; and, now, Washingtonian. He’ll remember the Orioles 8-2 win for a long time, but not for any on-field high jinks.
“This is one of a kind,” he says. “In a small way, the people who came out here today were support the team, but in a bigger way were out here to support Baltimore.
Former National Adam LaRoche strikes out to end the top of the ninth at 4:09, putting the Orioles’ oddball win in the books in two hours and four minutes, incredibly breezy by the sport’s standards. As the lingering Pickles Pub crowd cheers, somebody on staff cues up the Goo Goo Dolls’ 1998 hit “Broadway.”
“Broadway is dark tonight,” John Rzeznik sings. It was dark all day.