Books: The day the Orioles played empty, and other single-game volumes

Wonder what playing in front of an empty stadium is like? The Orioles and White Sox did just that.

Before the spring training shutdown and regular season delay were done, over the coronavirus alarm, they talked about playing spring exhibitions before empty houses. Baltimore Orioles designated hitter/first baseman Chris Davis wasn’t exactly thrilled. He’d been there/done that once before in his career. He’d even homered. The circumstances around it were arguably as dangerous as a pandemic.

It happened in Camden Yards on April 29, 2015, thirty-six hours after Baltimore was battered by the worst riots the city saw since the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The riots of outrage and grief after a 25-year-old suspect named Freddie Gray died in police custody en route a holding cell.

Unable to cancel the game but unwilling to offer further room to troublemakers in the riots’ wake, the Orioles agreed to close Camden Yards to the public and play the Chicago White Sox anyway. Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez opened by retiring the White Sox in order in the top of the first. In the bottom of the first, all hell broke loose—the kind baseball approves.

More Orioles: Mancini has more than baseball to focus on

Facing Jeff Samardzija of the White Sox, the Orioles opened with a walk, a batter safe on a throwing error, and a bases-loading single. Adam Jones hit a sacrifice fly. Then Davis hit a three-run homer. Then, it was double (Manny Machado), RBI double (Everth Cabrera), and RBI single (Caleb Joseph), and the Orioles ended the inning with a 6-0 lead.

The Orioles hung up a seventh run when Joseph singled Machado home in the third. The White Sox snuck a pair home in the fifth on an infield error and a ground out. Machado ripped one solo into the left center field seats in the fifth, and you could hear the thunk! of the ball landing on the floor.

The 8-2 Oriole lead held for the win, answering sadly the old gag rhetorical question, “Supposed they played a ball game and nobody showed up?” For reasons having nothing to do with the home team’s on-field futility, borne of off-field tanking or otherwise.

Somewhere, some how, the Orioles tried to find a little humour in the atmosphere. Their best shots at it were Joseph signing phantom autographs for phantom fans and Davis, out of force of habit, tossing a ball into the stands as he left the field following a third defensive out. The ball landed fifteen rows behind the Oriole dugout with a pronounced clunk!

Longtime Baltimore Sun writer Kevin Cowherd revisited the game and the Orioles who were part of it for When the Crowd Didn’t Roar: How Baseball’s Strangest Game Ever Gave a Broken City Hope, published just about a year ago. He tells the story with sensitivity and sobriety at once, both the days leading up to the game, the game itself, and the Oriole minds haunted by their home city broken in half over police malfeasance.

Cowherd walks a fine, even, and unshakable line gathering the thoughts and fears of such white Orioles as Davis and Tommy Hunter and such black Orioles as Jones, especially, Jones knowing that on the one hand years of frustration in Baltimore’s black community had composed a powder keg but knowing, too, that breaking a city already somewhat past broken wasn’t likely to end the nightmares.

The gallows humour wasn’t limited to the Orioles alone. White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton couldn’t resist tweeting as Cowherd revisits, that the White Sox “are gonna do our best to take the crowd out of it early. Wish us luck.” Eaton was well aware the game would be played in an empty park. The blowback compelled him to tweet hastily that he was only trying to lighten a mood that was about as light as a fully-loaded cargo flight.

“Would any sentient adult American be shocked to learn that Baltimore has a corrupt and feckless police department enabled by a corrupt and feckless city government?” asked Kevin D. Williamson, a National Review writer, in the immediate aftermath, before answering himself. “I myself would not, and the local authorities’ dishonesty and stonewalling in the death of Freddie Gray is reminiscent of what we have seen in other cities. There’s a heap of evidence that the Baltimore police department is pretty bad.”

That was after Williamson noted that the rioters’ preponderant targets weren’t the police or other local government offices but local businesses having had nothing to do with Baltimore police crime and corruption. Indeed, the pre-game atmosphere included the National Guard, Maryland’s state police, and cops from other Maryland localities staging in the parking lot just south of Camden Yards just in case. Of what, was anybody’s edgy guess.

“Try to put yourselves in the shoes of the people that are hurting right now,” Cowherd quotes Jones telling Davis and closer Zach Britton, to both of which white players Jones feels kindred because they, too, arose out of humbling childhoods. “Not just the people rioting, not just the store owners who lost their livelihoods, but the police, too. We have an opportunity as a team to rally around the city and help a lot of people.”

But Jones then remembers that he also needs them and anyone else who’d listen why his race matters, that once he’s out of his uniform he’s just another black man upon whom too many still cast suspicious eyes before they see him as just a man. Even if he wasn’t fully aware of Baltimore’s “painful past when it comes to race and poverty,” Cowherd writes.

The author also puts us back into the shoes of Toya Graham, the black woman who feared for her sixteen-year-old son’s safety—until she saw him among the looters at Mondawmin Mall, high-tailed it to the mall, and gave him a what-for that only began with a roundhouse to his head in full view of television cameras. “He knew. He knew he was in trouble,” Graham said. “That’s my only son and at the end of the day I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. I was angry. I was shocked, because you never want to see your child out there doing that.”

Two days after the No Fans Game, as it became known, Baltimore’s state’s attorney announced the six police officers involved in Freddie Gray’s in-custory death faced criminal charges. Police commissioner Anthony Batts was fired, both over Gray’s death and over a police union report accusing police leadership of a “passive stance” toward the rioters. And Baltimore’s mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake chose not to seek re-election.

The city settled with Gray’s family for just over six million dollars. The first trial of the officers ended with a hung jury; three of the other officers were eventually acquitted; charges were eventually dropped against three cops including the one whose trial ended hung.

Baltimore is still considered hell. But the No Fans Game helped ease the Gray rage into a kind of quiet continuing outrage, as the days following the game saw only peaceful if no less determined protests.

Cowherd navigates the game, what preceded, and what followed, with a sure hand and an eye and mind not prone to exaggeration. He had to have known in his heart that everything—Baltimore’s sad conditions, Freddie Gray’s death, the riots, rages, and sorrows to follow—were exaggerated enough.

When the Crowd Didn’t Roar is the latest in a curious but remarkable library section of books that have hooked around single baseball games. Some of the best of that group include four that have at least one thing in common, the New York/San Francisco Giants:

Arnold Hano, A Day in the Bleachers (1955; 2004)—Freshly assuming a career writing freelance, after a decade as a publishing editor, Hano scored a Polo Grounds bleacher seat for Game One of the 1954 World Series, went to the game with a notebook . . . and came away with Hall of Famer Willie Mays‘s fabled catch in front of the fence. This may have been the first but remains the best of any baseball book written as just another fan in the seats.

Daniel Okrent, Nine Innings (1985)—The editor who invented Rotisserie League Baseball‘s scoring system caught hold of a 1983 game between the Orioles and the Milwaukee Brewers and broke it down to scrupulous detail, surface and subterranean alike, without letting the flow of the game itself slip away from his hands. What Hano did for ordinary fans, Okrent did for more serious observers.

Joshua Prager, The Echoing Green (2006)—Or, The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! Prager expands his original Wall Street Journal expose into the complete story of Leo Durocher‘s center field clubhouse-based telescopic sign-stealing scheme. The scheme that enabled the Giants first to come back from thirteen games down in 1951 and then, possibly, to win what was once baseball’s most legendary game and the pennant at the eleventh hour of a fabled playoff now considered tainted.

Jim Kaplan, The Greatest Game Ever Pitched (2011)—The former Sports Illustrated staffer considers it to be the sixteen-inning duel between Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal on July 2, 1963. The two high-kicking lancers, one lefthanded, one righthanded, one almost old enough to be the other’s father, swapped shutouts until Mays himself ended it with a homer. Kaplan’s re-examination is almost (underline that) as good as having been at the game.

Jim Rosengren, The Fight of Their Lives (2014)—There was far more to the infamous Dodgers-Giants brawl in San Francisco in late August 1965 than just Marichal bringing his bat down upon Dodger catcher John Roseboro‘s head. It didn’t quite begin with Roseboro nearly skulling Marichal with a return throw to the mound. It didn’t quite end when the two men—both of whom acted completely out of character that day, both of whom were buffeted severely by external forces going in—eventually settled out of court over the incident. The subtitle doesn’t even begin to tell it: “A story of forgiveness and redemption.” A story Rosengren writes with appropriate empathy.

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