Participants, Residents Reflect On Meaning Of Fanless Baseball In Baltimore

Participants, Residents Reflect On Meaning Of Fanless Baseball In Baltimore

By Noah Bierman and Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

BALTIMORE — The umpire walked on the field with a gracious wave to the crowd. He might have been joking, or just stuck in his habits. There was no crowd.

For the first time in its long and quirky history, Major League Baseball held a “ghost game,” with no fans to watch the Baltimore Orioles defeat the Chicago White Sox, 8-2.

No one waited in line for a bathroom, basked in the bright 72-degree afternoon, noshed on Maryland crab cakes or booed when the umpire made a bad call.

Not one of the 45,971 green plastic seats at Camden Yards was occupied by a paying customer. Just three lonely scouts watched from behind home plate, backed up by an unusually large group of curious reporters in the press box, most of whom were shaking their heads in bewilderment at this odd chapter in baseball lore.

“Today’s official paid attendance is zero,” the press box announcer said.

The league made the decision to hold its first fanless game out of safety concern in this city that has been torn apart by riots in recent days and is just now calming down.

It wasn’t being played so much for the love of the game as the obligation to the standings and the unforgiving 162-game schedule.

The play on the field was brisk, lasting just over two hours, with a lightning-fast rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” defining a seventh-inning stretch that featured no stretching.

The circumstances around the game were far more remarkable, calling into question the very meaning of baseball and fandom. If there are no fans, is there even a true game? And if the fans are not needed, why do we watch? What is home field advantage about — the ability of millionaire players to sit in a familiar dugout or the psychic need of our sports heroes to bond with a community?

That last question was especially pressing this week in Baltimore. The game was played without fans precisely because it was thought to be too dangerous to allow them inside the gates, a decision that provoked intense debate.

Adam LaRoche, first baseman for the White Sox, said the lack of fans had certainly deprived the game of some of its meaning.

“It’s a big part of why we come out here and do what we do,” he said in an interview in the dugout before the game. “It’s a shame that it’s come to them not being able to come out and (enjoy) the game.”

But White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper — while conceding, “It’s weird, it’s different” — said he had thought deeply about this question and that the players had to find the emotion and drive from within, at least this time.

“If a ball goes into the seats and nobody sees it, is it still a home run? You bet it is,” said Cooper, a 38-year veteran of the game, who sat in the dugout before the game chewing tobacco.

Orioles Manager Buck Showalter has a voice that matters much more in Baltimore. He said it was not his place to imagine why the city had become unglued this week. He could not possibly get into the mind of the city’s young black men and pretend he understood their experience, he said. But, he added, he wanted the team to rally the city.

“There are some things I don’t want to be normal,” he said. “I don’t. I want us to learn from some stuff that’s gone on, from both sides of it.”

It was certainly not normal in the ballpark. Showalter said he was careful about the language he used in the dugout because it was so easy to hear it from anywhere in the cavernous stadium.

A smattering of fans from the fence beyond the outfield provided the only cheers: “O-R-I-O-L-E-S…Let’s go, O’s!”

Peering into the stadium, they caught a sliver of the action. The best views were across the street from the park, in the Hilton Hotel tower; there were Orioles and White Sox banners hanging from the balconies. Team staffers handed out free Orioles floppy hats.

“You’re taking away from the fans, but I understand there is bigger stuff going on than baseball right now,” said Benjamin Fluke, 19, a criminal justice major at the University of Baltimore who watched from outside.

Ballpark officials played a taped instrumental version of the national anthem to start the game, and piped in music before each member of the home team walked to the plate, hoping to maintain a semblance of the normal routine that athletes covet. But that only made the eerie silence more awkward.

There are Little League games going on all over the country with more fans in the stands. When the ball went foul, it bounced off the seats, with no one fighting over who got to take it home.

The rumbles from the players’ dugout — “Go, go!” “Come on, baby!” — could be heard from the press box, as could the scraping swoosh of players sliding into base.

“Goodbye,” said the television play-by-play announcer, celebrating an unusually long home run, his voice carrying farther outside the broadcast booth than normal.

The sounds of the ball hitting the wooden bat were unusually crisp. But no one celebrated the great catch in right field or the double play that ended the White Sox’s second inning on a scoreless note.

A bemused Richard Messick, a lifelong Baltimore resident, sat on a post on the sidewalk watching the spectacle. “It breaks my heart that it had to come to this,” he said, speaking of the riots that had left the city bruised. As for the decision to hold a game in an empty stadium, he said it was an overreaction.

“I understand their concern,” Messick said. “But it’s nuts.”

Photo: Carolyn Cole via Los Angeles Times/TNS

In Baltimore, Riots Appear Where Urban Renewal Didn’t

In Baltimore, Riots Appear Where Urban Renewal Didn’t

By Noah Bierman and Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

BALTIMORE — Tanishia Lewis and her young children were filling trash bags in a parking lot Tuesday morning, joining others who hoped to quickly erase the scars left by rioters. But the problems in her West Baltimore neighborhood run much deeper than a night of burning and looting, and won’t be easily scrubbed away.

“I have to go outside my community to go to the supermarket,” she said. “I don’t feel safe for my kids playing in the playground.

“There are some really good people here,” said Lewis, 31, who works for a nonprofit community group and still lives in the neighborhood where she grew up. But “there’s no investment.”

Downtown Baltimore has seen large-scale projects dating to the 1990s — a popular aquarium and a trendsetting baseball stadium, to name two — that have turned the Inner Harbor into a prime example of urban renewal, admired and imitated by city planners around the nation.

But the poor neighborhoods of West Baltimore that formed the epicenter of this week’s riots could be mistaken for parts of Detroit. Block upon block of three-story row houses lie vacant, with smashed-in windows, boarded doors and garbage. In the commercial blocks, a yellow ribbon promising “Coming soon: 99 cent store!” is faded and frayed, placed above one of many storefronts that have only shards of glass in the window pane. A few shops that remain in business cash checks, sell discount cellphone plans, and rent furniture.

Until Monday, there had been one bright spot amid the despair: a relatively new CVS pharmacy, hardly a luxury showcase but good enough to fill prescriptions and sell milk in a neighborhood that had little.

Now, after it was burned by rioters Monday, it is a bleak symbol, the spot where angry protesters, police in riot gear, and live television trucks converge to tell a story of an American city in distress.

“This is a ghost town. The only store we have, they burned down,” said Ashley Ewell, a 27-year-old debt consolidator, standing near looters this week.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake lamented the lost jobs in a neighborhood that badly needs them.

“What are they going to do?” she said.

It’s no coincidence that the incident that touched off the unrest happened just six blocks from the CVS. Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died last week after he was injured in police custody, was a product of this neighborhood too.

Gray is the latest and most incendiary example of the mutual distrust between police and many black Americans. Some Baltimore residents, echoing complaints from other troubled cities, say the police act almost as a force of occupiers instead of public servants.

“They’re more like an overseer,” said Damon Speaks, a black property manager here who said police once chased him, rather than a white burglar, when he reported that an intruder had broken into one of his buildings.

But Gray’s family decries the violent retaliation of Monday’s riots.

“They say they’re doing all this for my cousin,” said Jazz Aiken, 19, while buying a grape snow cone a few blocks from the CVS on Tuesday. “But that’s not why they doing it.

“You’ve got some people that don’t got jobs,” she said.

This neighborhood, site of the gritty television drama The Wire, has followed a familiar pattern of urban decay: a decline of good jobs, interstate highways that ripped across historical enclaves, and public housing projects that became magnets for crime.

Generations of families who have grown up here in poverty say the brutal 1968 race riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. have become part of the neighborhood’s narrative fabric, and the community has never fully recovered.

For four days that year, the city was under virtual siege, with bombs going off, buildings burned and looters rampaging. There were hundreds of injuries and thousands of arrests, and federal troops had to be called in to bring the city under control.

“History repeats itself, I guess,” said Briana Moore, 22, a junior at Coppin State University in Baltimore, as looters raided the nearby Mondawmin Mall. “To me this is stupid. This is not going to solve anything. Breaking into malls, breaking into liquor stores, what does this have to do with Freddie Gray? This ain’t about justice no more.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. on Tuesday walked past the burned CVS store, handing out voter registration forms, as a scrum of reporters and residents trailed him.

“People need houses, health care, jobs, and education,” he said. “That costs, but it costs a lot more not to do it.”

Robert Everett, a 51-year-old construction worker, grew up hearing tales from his relatives about the heyday of Pennsylvania Avenue, the neighborhood’s main artery, when it was filled with clubs featuring Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. A statue of Billie Holiday, who spent her childhood in Baltimore, stands near a theater where she performed.

“I ain’t ever seen nothing like this,” Everett said. “It’s crazy, man, just crazy.”

Lewis, the community group worker who spent Tuesday cleaning up, lives on what she said is a good and safe block. She believes there are some subtle signs of gentrification: a few more Latino and white residents than she remembers and a proposal to knock down a housing development and replace it with a more modern complex of retail and residential units.

Even though she earned a college degree in social work and might have more options than others, she does not plan to leave.

“It’s where I’m from,” Lewis said. “I know it’s going to change soon for the better.”

Then she paused, as if to convince herself. “Hopefully soon.”

(Staff writers W.J. Hennigan and David Lauter contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Tribune Co., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Baltimore police officers standby on Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)