When I think about the strangest things I’ve covered in my career, it’s hard to top exactly one year ago today – the afternoon that will forever be known as the “No Fans Game” at Camden Yards.
Yes, it was April 29, 2015 against these same Chicago White Sox when the Orioles played a regular-season game in front of no fans, a safety and security precaution taken after riots occurred in the City of Baltimore following the death of city resident Freddie Gray while in police custody.
That whole week was surreal.
That Saturday night, the stadium was briefly on lockdown (and then David Lough hit a walkoff homer). Sunday was normal; Monday the game was postponed before the first pitch, but all of the media (and many fans) were already there.
Sun baseball writer Ed Encina and I were the last non-police officers to leave the stadium that evening. As we walked down the steps of home plate plaza we were passed by a group of officers in riot gear. I guess that’s when the seriousness of it all really sunk in.
My phone blew up with messages from concerned friends and family members while I drove the long way home, making sure I avoided my usual route through the city. That night, I watched the news reports for hours, taking in those awful and frightening sights while praying that no lives would be lost.
The next day, the Orioles smartly postponed that evening’s game. And then the real weirdness came. A Wednesday afternoon contest in which the park was closed to fans. When the National Anthem was played – the moment of the picture featured above – there was just one scout and one pitch-information operator in the lower bowl of the stadium.
There are a lot of things that stuck with me from that game. Like seeing catcher Caleb Joseph signing pre-game autographs to imaginary fans in the front row. Or Chris Davis throwing balls to those same imaginary supporters in between innings.
There was Davis’ three-run homer in the first that we could faintly hear land over the right field scoreboard. And MASN broadcaster Gary Thorne’s home run call was audible in the lower-level press box, something that had never occurred before.
“It was a tough day for the city of Baltimore, it was a tough day for us too,” Davis said. “The first thing that comes to mind was hitting the home run and seeing the fans outside the gate. The resiliency of the city, how much support our fans have given us throughout the years and especially in a tough time like that. I think it was pretty cool. It was a jolt in our arm and it was a big deal for the city to kind of get things back together.”
We all chuckled at the fans standing outside the locked gate in left center and on the balcony of the Hilton Baltimore, who were cheering as if they were inside the park. And we were astonished that we could hear the players call for pop-ups. At one point, a fellow reporter about five spots down from me in the press box yelled to get my attention; several players said they had heard it from the dugout.
After the game, a member of the community sneaked into the post-game press conference and asked manager Buck Showalter what advice he would give young African-Americans struggling with the situation – and Showalter offered a poignant answer, albeit one that was more a summation of the day and the week.
“We’ve made quite a statement as a city, some good and some bad,” Showalter said at the time. “Now, let’s get on with taking the statements we’ve made and create a positive … I want to be a rallying force for our city.”
One year later, it’s difficult to put that day in better perspective. That’ll probably come with more time. The strangeness of it all lingers.
“It was really weird,” Orioles starter Chris Tillman said. “Something I’d like to never be part of again. It wasn’t a good time for the city, but we won.”
It’s certainly is a day worth remembering; it’s something I’ll be asked about – and will retell – likely for the rest of my life.