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