I was going to write about a fun feature that MLB will be doing for the All Star game this year – having fans vote for the four greatest players of each individual franchise, in addition to the four greatest living players, four greatest old time stars, and four greatest Negro League players. It was set to be a fun column.
And then this happened…
It’s not too often that baseball intersects with true national events. A team winning a championship becomes news for a moment’s time, but doesn’t really affect day to day life, nor does it reflect day to day life. A scandal – like the Steroid Days of the late 90’s/early 00’s – says a lot about who we are and what we value in our modern culture, but again, the sport itself is the root of its own national discussion.
What happened on Wednesday, however, is rooted deeply in our national discussion of civil rights, police brutality, and the economic stratification of the working classes. In this instance, baseball serves as a portrait in time of our national identity, where the events of the game intersect with a major news event of its time. Think George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch of the 2001 World Series. Politics aside, the event remains in hindsight a testament to the national mood in the weeks and months after 9/11. When Dubya fired a first pitch fastball right down the heart of the plate, it buoyed the hearts and minds of millions of Americans struggling to find some semblance of balance. The National Pastime served as a constant amidst a time of strife, sorrow, and deep uncertainty about our place in the world. It was a beautiful moment.
This was not.
I won’t recap the events that have rocked the city of Baltimore for the past week – the thoughtless, senseless death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, and the protests that have erupted into riots at various times. Parts of Baltimore have smoldered while armed police line the streets. Looters have vandalized countless businesses. A city-wide curfew is in place. A state-wide emergency was declared.
And on Wednesday, the Chicago White Sox visited Camden Yards to play the Baltimore Orioles in front of a crowd of 0 spectators.
This is thought to be a first in the history of major league baseball, an entity that has lasted for almost 150 years. Believing the atmosphere of the city to be too dangerous to allow 40,000 fans into the park, the Orioles decided to play the game behind closed doors, shutting the gates to any and all fans.
Was this the right thing to do? It cannot be truly determined. Yours truly believes that such a riot could not possibly spread to a crowd of fans united by a love of baseball on an April afternoon. Then again, yours truly didn’t think that the events of Ferguson were possible either. And yet, here we are.
The fact that this game happened is somewhat sad. It really wasn’t possible to cancel another game – the first two games of this series were postponed following the violence. Baltimore has a rich history in the game. It’s the birthplace of John McGraw and Babe Ruth. The Orioles are rich with tradition, featuring players such as Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, and Brooks Robinson. Cal Ripken Jr. broke the consecutive games record on a gorgeous night in 1995 right in this very park, which is still one of the most beautiful parks in major league history. The notion of an empty baseball game happening under these circumstances is jarring, to say the least.
There were occasional moments of levity. After the end of an inning, Orioles first baseman fired the ball into the stands – a normal enough occasion when some fan is there to receive the free souvenir, but a surreal event bordering on the absurd when the ball bounced off of the empty seats. Meanwhile, before the game, this Orioles player mocked the pregame signing of autographs. Even in dark times, the human spirit seeks to make the best of a bad situation.
The game itself was fairly irreverent. The Sox aren’t as good as they will be later in the summer (or so I believe), and lost the game 8 to 2 after the Orioles piled up a 6-0 lead in the first inning. Only two scouts behind home plate (and a full press-box) bore witness to the day’s events. It wasn’t easy to find the game, but if you knew what you were looking for, you could catch the surreal events on a national broadcast. I was able to watch several innings on a TV at work, and the game was weird.
Bats boomed loudly in a cavernous environment. The ball smacked a little harder into the catcher’s mitt. Fly balls and line drives hit fielders’ gloves with an extra audible smack. It was as though someone turned the sounds of the game itself up to 11, while slamming noise dampening headphones over the rest of the audio tracks of the game.
The events of the past week in Baltimore have been a long time coming. Income inequality has raised the poverty rate of blacks in the city to absurd proportions. Police brutality is a well-documented occurrence. The thermometer for racial tension in America is boiling over after years and years of people assuming the events of the 60’s solved everything when in reality they were only the first picking of the scab that is how we view race in our country.
But nobody saw this game coming. Just as nobody saw the Orioles win 8-2 on a Wednesday in April, nobody saw violent protests erupting. Nobody saw a young man being killed in a police van after being arrested for nebulous reasons at best – if for any reason at all. Nobody saw a major American city erupting in flames on nightly television as something that might happen. Nobody saw years and years of racial tension exploding into violent reactionary protests.
Nobody, that is, unless you knew what to look for.
We hold Baltimore in our thoughts and wish for peace and progress in what are currently very dark times indeed, and hope that something good can come out of the senseless violence currently rocking the city.