When I covered the first baseball game absent of fans in 2015, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now, sporting events in empty venues will be the new normal, at least for the time being in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 29, 2015, the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played a regular-season game at Camden Yards behind closed gates. No fans were permitted in, and with the exception of players, coaches, media, support staff and a handful of scouts, the ballpark was empty.
Games will be played without fans this year as a public safety issue. The 2015 game was played without fans for a much different reason. Baltimore was hurting following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died in police custody in the city.
On April 25, protests turned violent and landed on the front gates of Camden Yards just before a home game against the Red Sox. The combination of angry demonstrators and the pregame crowd was a bad mix. That night, it forced authorities to briefly put the stadium on lockdown while the Orioles played into extra innings. Outside the stadium, buildings were being burned and cars toppled. Windows of Camden Yards’ iconic warehouse were target practice for rocks.
A 10 p.m. curfew was enacted, the next two games postponed. And while the teams decided to play April 29, they didn’t want fans coming into the city, and all parties agreed that the law enforcement typically utilized at a baseball game was better suited elsewhere, so it was closed to fans.
I remember meeting Kweisi Mfume, a former Maryland congressman and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, outside the gates. A year later, I reached out to him to reflect on the game, and he said playing it without fans was the right thing to do.
“You don’t want to be cheering while your city is burning,” he said.
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Now the focus will be on keeping people apart, out of close quarters where the virus can spread. That’s something none of us are used to. We’re used to sitting side by side in the seating bowl, lining up for concessions and crowding a player for an autograph.
Even if fans were allowed in the stands, it wouldn’t be the same. It can’t be. Not yet, at least.
Back five years ago, walking along an empty concourse while the game was going on might have been the strangest thing. As a reporter, you’re at the ballpark early and late enough to experience an empty stadium, but not during or right before the game.
No one remembers the score from that game, an 8-2 Orioles win. Everyone remembers the experience, so I decided to cover it from various angles. I went outside the stadium, where fans peered through the gates to watch history. They came from all over the area. Some saw it as a spectacle. If a baseball game was being played behind closed gates, they wanted to say they caught a glimpse.
I found my way up to the Hilton hotel balconies that overlooked the stadium from the outfield, rooms that fans reserved specifically to watch the game.
From any perspective, the thing that immediately hits you is how much your senses get heightened. From seven floors up and 250 yards away, you still could hear the chatter in the dugout and the broadcasters’ voices.
In the first inning, Chris Davis hit a home run down the rightfield line. I don’t think I’ve heard a louder crack of the bat. It’s only comparable to watching spring training batting practice on the back fields.
As we watched Davis’ ball land over the rightfield fence from the balcony, the group couldn’t tell whether the ball was fair. They all could have easily looked for the first-base umpire’s signal, but instead they all ran to the TV inside the room for confirmation it was a home run.
Now we’ll rely on broadcasts even more to be our eyes and ears.
Back inside the press box, everything again was magnified. While most professional athletes have played in front of few or no fans in their younger years, none had played in such a large facility that is completely empty.
At first pitch, there were three people in the entire seating bowl, a trio of pro scouts allowed to sit behind home plate. Above us, we could hear MASN TV broadcaster Gary Thorne’s every word, to the point that he jokingly converted his cadence to a quiet golf announcer voice. Orioles manager Buck Showalter, shouting out directions and encouragement from the dugout, seemed more like a high school coach because his tone seemed to have extra resonance. Eventually each dugout realized the other could hear them clearly from opposite sides of the field.
The atmosphere almost took me back to the sandlots of my youth.
White Sox centerfielder Adam Eaton, the game’s leadoff hitter, watched smoke billow from burning buildings from the visiting team hotel.
“To be honest with you, when I first went into it I didn’t think it would be a big deal,” he said. “There was almost this half-asleep feel because there was no energy. There were no people there. … There was no music. … It was almost like worse than a back-field spring training game.”
Sports will return — hopefully sooner rather than later to filled stadiums and arenas — and being able to watch games on television will bring back much-needed normalcy. But in the venues themselves, playing without fans in the stands will be unlike anything these professional athletes have experienced.
I’ve never forgotten.