Spiegel: The Fitting Oddity Of A Fanless Ballgame

By Matt Spiegel–

(CBS) “The game is nothing without the fans.”

While of course a financial truism, this statement usually comes off as patronizing pablum. It’s just one of those things players, managers or executives say before they tell you the real reason they’re doing something.

But then you get what we got Wednesday, when a game without the fans was one of the strangest viewing, playing and listening, experiences of our baseball lives as the Orioles earned an 8-2 win over the White Sox at an empty Camden Yards.

MLB decided to get a game in to save scheduling problems later, but it didn’t want to pull any police presence whatsoever from the much more important matters in Baltimore, where riots broke out recently following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.  So the teams were there, the media was there and three scouts sat behind the plate.

That’s it.

The first wide-angle establishing shot of a vacant Camden Yards felt like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi movie.

There was a national anthem. Players got their walk-up music. Later, by MLB rule, there would be a seventh-inning stretch, with the Baltimore P.A. playing John Denver’s “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” as always.

White Sox TV men Hawk Harrelson and Steve Stone were our guides in this post-apocalyptic world (where people still decided to play games). But Gary Thorne, the Orioles’ play-by-play man, was audible from the next booth over too. At one point on the Orioles broadcast, Thorne heard Steve Stone was mildly annoyed at this and declared he would speak up.

You could hear camera shutters from the photo pits, capturing a burst of quick stills on nearly every pitch.

The echo of every pitch as it hit the catcher’s mitt was striking. Footsteps on the dirt were audible. Umpire calls were the loudest presence.

Foul balls landed with a thunk on seats or concrete. Then each section acted like a Pachinko machine, funneling the baseball down to the lowest row before inertia won out.

The pervasive quiet was, well, disquieting. The entire atmosphere was so uncomfortable and off-putting that it served a purpose surely unintended. It was an eerie reminder of the anguish and discomfort in the city of Baltimore.

In a smaller, far less important parallel, the game was uncomfortable.

The ballgame was the tree falling in the forest, but this time we were all here to see it.

This game counted; the tree fell. White Sox right-hander Jeff Samardzija was terrible. Maybe he feeds off of a crowd, like many of us do.

I was reminded of a famous rock-and-roll legend, of when the band Van Halen was still just a fixture in the L.A. club scene. A&R guys from Warner Brothers came to see them at a tiny little place at 7 in the evening. The crowd was miniscule, but the band rocked flamboyantly at full volume, like they were playing a stadium show.

The Orioles offense didn’t need a home crowd. They were running with the devil around the bases for six runs in the first inning, and this one got out of hand quickly.

Chris Davis homered, and his dugout was the only source of cheers. Then, they quieted down.

“We were yelling, and then we kind of felt bad because we’re like, ‘Show some sportsmanship a little bit, too,'” Orioles closer Zach Britton said. “You don’t want to over-do it because you knew everyone could hear you. It was just weird because it kind of tempered our celebration a little bit.”

Davis tossed baseballs into the stands after every inning in which he made the final putout, as he does when a crowd is present. Catcher Geovany Soto did the same after a strikeout ended a White Sox defensive half-inning.

The reaction to this uniquely weird matinee spread around the league. At Wrigley Field, Cubs manager Joe Madddon said he made sure to sign every autograph requested pregame, realizing anew how the customers make the whole endeavor possible.

This game felt odd and somewhat sad.

It’s a seriously sad time in Baltimore, after brutality from one side led to protests from another. Then hundreds of opportunistic people gave in to the worst side of humanity. It’s hard to take a non-violent approach when violence is the impetus for your rage.

Media focus on this ballgame did present an opportunity for some to speak with passion and nuance about the situation.

“This is their cry,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones told the Washington Post. “This isn’t a cry that is acceptable, but this is their cry and, therefore, we have to understand it.  They need hugs. They need love. They need support. As much as I can give, as much as I know people on the opposition can give, I’m going to try and give as much as I can, because the city needs it.”

Orioles manager Buck Showalter

“We’ve made quite a statement as a city, some good and some bad,” Showalter said, according to MLB.com. “Now, let’s get on with taking the statements we’ve made and create a positive. We talk to players, and I want to be a rallying force for our city. It doesn’t mean necessarily playing good baseball. It just means (doing) everything we can do. There are some things I don’t want to be normal (in Baltimore again). You know what I mean? I don’t. I want us to learn from some stuff that’s gone on on both sides of it.”

On Wednesday, silly old baseball wasn’t a distraction. It wasn’t a chance to rally together. And it certainly wasn’t an emblem of a return to normalcy.

That game was anything but normal. It was surreal. And maybe that’s just what it should have been.

At a baseball game, fans matter.

Matt Spiegel is a host on the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on weekdays. Follow him on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.

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