Remembering the no-fans game five years later

The Orioles enter another day with no baseball on the agenda. No clue if or when there’s going to be a second spring training and season with an assortment of changes applied to it.

Five years ago today, they played a game with no fans at Camden Yards. An oddity that was disturbing on another level.

There were a couple of humorous moments, which we sought out in an attempt to provide some balance to the tension. Caleb Joseph tipped his cap to the imaginary crowd and pretended to sign autographs. Chris Davis tossed baseballs into the empty seats. And there was MASN broadcaster Gary Thorne’s call on Davis’ three-run homer in the first inning, which could be heard in the press box.

Two scouts sat behind home plate. The only other people visible in the seating area were several press photographers and the man logging the pitch speeds on the scoreboard. No one else.

The first major league game played with no fans in attendance was a product of rioting in the city following Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered while in police custody, which forced the postponement of the first two games of the series against the White Sox.

Baseball was secondary, just as it is today due to the coronavirus pandemic. Police resources couldn’t be wasted on sports. A city burned. The violence kept spreading. It was frightening, appalling. Emotions also spread in many directions.

“Let’s not lose sight of why we’re at this point,” said manager Buck Showalter.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards empty anthem.jpgThe game, moved to the afternoon because of the 10 p.m. curfew, was viewed as an attempt to regain a semblance of normalcy. Some fans gathered outside the gates in left-center field, handling “Oooo” duties during the anthem and cheering a six-run first inning in the Orioles’ 8-2 victory.

“We’re doing the right thing,” Davis said earlier in the day. “I’m not real happy about playing in an empty stadium. That’s one of the reasons that we look forward to coming home so much, playing in front of our fans. But we also understand that there’s a bigger picture here.”

Ubaldo Jiménez held the White Sox to two unearned runs over seven innings, and Kevin Gausman and Zack Britton each tossed a scoreless frame. Manny Machado homered off Jeff Samardzija in the fifth after his error in the top half of the inning was responsible for the unearned runs.

The game lasted only 2 hours, 3 minutes and attracted enough media both locally and nationally to pack the press box. We heard the announcement that “today’s official paid attendance is zero.”

“There are a lot more important issues going on outside the stadium,” Britton said. “It kind of makes you realize how small baseball is compared to some of the other issues in the U.S. and around the world.”

John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” still played during the seventh-inning stretch. Players easily could be heard yelling “I’ve got it” while claiming a popup or fly ball. Chants of “Let’s go O’s” from outside the gates cut through the silence.

Some fans chanted, “Let us in,” but to no avail.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura described the environment as “surreal.” He nailed it.

People sitting in the dugouts swore they could hear the bullpen phones ringing.

“I think everybody was real careful about what they said from the dugout because everybody on the field could hear it, the umpires and them,’’ Showalter said.

The Orioles didn’t have Jonathan Schoop, who went on the disabled list earlier in the month with a partially torn PCL and sprained MCL in his right knee, and J.J. Hardy, who began the season on the disabled list due to a left shoulder injury suffered while lunging for a ball in spring training. Catcher Matt Wieters also was on the DL while continuing his recovery from Tommy John surgery and developing tendinitis in the elbow.

Rey Navarro started at second base and Everth Cabrera at shortstop. Jimmy Paredes came off the disabled list to replace Schoop on the active roster and served as the designated hitter.

Cabrera was released on June 13 and didn’t get back to the majors. Navarro’s only major league experience consisted of 10 games with the Orioles in 2015.

A weekend series against the Rays was moved from Camden Yards to Tropicana Field, with the Orioles deemed the home team beneath the dome. The Rays served crab cakes to the media and employees, and PR director Rick Vaughn, who once held the same job with the Orioles, ordered 10 dozen Bergers cookies for the press dining room, which were gone before first pitch.

“The other day at our ballpark, once the game started, it was baseball between the lines,” Showalter said. “The things you’ve got to do to be successful you have to do. White pants, gray pants, it’s still baseball between the lines. We lost basically four home games, so it’s just another challenge that we’re going to have that some other clubs may not. I hope they don’t.”

The Orioles could be playing games this season without fans at home and on the road or at various spring training sites, the safety concerns shifting to the pandemic.

They’ve had experience with isolation.

They’d just like to get back to normal.

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