This begins with apologies to Randy Newman:
Broken windows and empty ballparks
A pale dead sun in a sky streaked with grey.
Owner kindness is overflowing,
And I think it shoulda rained today.
Bright before me empty stands implore me
To let the needy watch the boys play.
Owner kindness is underwhelming
And what really happened to Freddie Gray.
The TV announcers at Baltimore’s empty Camden Yards introduced what they called a historic baseball game – a game played without fans. They said it would be about grinding it out. Manager Buck Showalter said they are playing to bring some kind of normalcy back into the city.
Adam Jones, their star African-American player, said they are playing to get “closer to the Baltimore we know and love.”
What is normal, however, is going to a game, not just watching on TV. Games are to be attended, even though you can call balls and strikes much better when watching at home. So why go anyway? It has to do with community, with shared experience. And on the sunny spring day of April 29, 2015, the fan-less game pits the continuity of society against the continuity of business.
There have been baseball games postponed in the wake of past riots – The Detroit Tigers postponed a game after the 1967 riots there; after the Rodney King riots of 1982 the Dodgers postponed four games. The Orioles just followed suit, postponing the first two games of a three game series against the White Sox (the team name is ironic) because of the 2015 riots in Baltimore. But never has a game been played at an empty stadium. The mayor and police were worried about fan safety.
This game is called the national pastime for a reason. Even in the darkest days of World War II, when it looked like the Allies might be defeated by Nazi Germany, President Roosevelt insisted that baseball be played as always. This was when many of the best players (Stan Musial, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg) were serving in the army. The game symbolized community and continuity.
Even though baseball had yet to see Jackie Robinson break the color barrier, people from all walks of life appreciated this continuity. Negro League stadiums were also filled with avid fans.
Something is wrong. To play in an empty stadium is to me symbolic of the hollowness of modern major league baseball – it really is not for the fans, but for the owners. It underscores a new and omnipresent kind of segregation – that between fans and owners. Owners ignored the passionate statement of their own John Angelos (son of Oriole owner Peter) who wrote, “The political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore to third world dictatorships like China and others.” He also said that that elite “plunged tens of millions of good hard-working Americans into economic devastation.”
Chris Rock, who recently gave a bitingly funny critique of baseball, said that as a black baseball fan he’s an endangered species. He is no longer alone. I think after today’s unattended game many Baltimoreans will learn that they, too, are an endangered and ignored species – ignored because TV schedules must be met. Why couldn’t there have been another day of school closings so kids and parents could attend the game for free?
Attending a game is an experience – and Baltimore is in the midst of having its own community going up in flames. Baseball is about connecting with fans sitting next to you, meeting people from all over the place who come to cheer and jeer.
Babe Ruth’s statue – he was born in Baltimore – graces Oriole Park, and an old recording of his last words rings in my ears. He said, as he was dying, “You know this baseball game of ours comes up from the youth – that means the boys. And after you’ve been a boy and grow up to know how to play ball, then you come to the boys you see representing themselves today in our national pastime.”
Where are we going to see the boys of Baltimore 2015 in ten years? Certainly not at Camden Yards.