In Baltimore: No Justice, No Peace, No Fans
The national anthem played to deafening silence Wednesday afternoon in an empty ballpark in downtown Baltimore, a fitting image for a city divided and a team that's unwittingly found itself a gauge for public sentiment.
Or so the news media would have you believe.
The Baltimore I saw as I exited the train station, strolled around Camden Yards, and stopped by a growing, peaceful protest at City Hall, did not at all resemble the scene I'd seen on television: a city ablaze, a violent war zone. Contrary to what you've heard, and with apologies to Howard Cosell, Baltimore is not burning.
That's not to say the city is at ease. The National Guard is patrolling (some of) the streets, and armored vehicles can be seen zipping down the irregularly empty roadways. The concourse around Orioles Park was strikingly absent of its usual sea of orange and black.
One bad day of rioting and violence has left people on edge, a problem compounded by the fearful actions of local officials. The Orioles have been positioned squarely in the middle of the situation. The City Hall-directed lockdown of the ballpark on Saturday was not a proportional response to legitimate safety concerns, but did serve to amplify tensions, according to many of the people inside Camden Yards that evening. The decision to play Wednesday afternoon's game, after postponing the previous two, while closing the park to the public, was met with disappointment but resigned understanding. The relocation of this weekend's "home" series against the Rays to Tampa Bay caused a similar collective sigh among local business owners dealing with the realities of mass protest.
And through it all, the fear caused by images of cars on fire and brick-wielding youths on the streets obscures the important message of the thousands of peaceful protesters, who outnumber the rioters many times over. A city-imposed curfew has subdued the normally lively streets, replaced the orange and black with a conspicuous layer of camouflage.
"Who cares about the protests at this point? You can't even leave the house," a local white resident told me at Pickles, the famed bar across the street from Camden Yards that's normally packed with fans on game days. His statement strikes me as incredibly out of touch with the movement engulfing his city, yet appropriately indicative of the stark divide between the white and black experience in Baltimore.
It's also a sign that, whether exaggerated or not, the widespread feeling of fear is distracting the public from the very real threats facing black Baltimoreans, and, for that matter, blacks residing in cities across the nation. The average Joe is still more concerned about a broken CVS window than a broken justice system that sucks the life from part of our population, putting young men in jail or in the ground.
It's against this backdrop that you still feel for the people working in those businesses for whom a largely ineffective curfew has real, dollars-and-cents consequences. The bartenders and waitresses whose patronage peaks on nights and weekends. The taxi drivers who depend on residents reveling in the Baltimore nightlife, on tourists unafraid to see the city's sights, among which Camden Yards ranks high. The stadium employees tenuously supporting themselves with part-time, seasonal work.
It's against this backdrop that our nation's theme song, promising freedom for all, plays to 45,000 empty seats.
It's against this backdrop that a baseball game was still played, under historically bizarre circumstances, in a setting that at once demonstrated the problems at hand but the vitality of the city in the center of them. The Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox 8 to 2, but the score won't be what's remembered years from now. It'll be the image of those empty seats, the sound of ballpark silence, the resiliency of the groups of fans who still showed up when they were told to stay home.
Throughout the game, one could hear the distant cheering of Orioles fans who gathered outside the outfield gate and on the balconies of the hotel across the street, stalwart in showing their support for their team.
On normal game days, fans are prohibited from congregating that close to the gate, which offers a slim glimpse of the field. But on this day, as ramped-up security patrolled the more "at-risk" neighborhoods, ballpark security eased up on these dedicated fans. One guard told me security was meant to be "more lenient" given the situation. Rather than ushering them away, a couple of fans told me, the security guards brought out a box of floppy hats meant to be part of a promotional giveaway and handed them out.
It's amazing the cooperation that can arise from mutual respect. Rather than viewing and treating these fans as a threat, the security personnel understood them as simply trying to cope with the unfortunate situation they were all in.
Inside the park, the feeling was oddly sterile, devoid of much concern for the dark undercurrents causing this weird setting, somewhat casually laughed off as just one of those days that will eventually be the answer to a slew of MLB trivia questions. It was hard not to smile as Orioles first baseman Chris Davis homered in the first inning, to little fanfare outside of the "Goodbye!" home run call by Baltimore television announcer Gary Thorne, whose every word could be heard from our press booth -- and, according to some players, the field.
It was hard not to appreciate the levity the Camden Yards sound guys brought to the confused atmosphere when they played Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" between innings. ("Words are very unnecessary," indeed.) It was downright impossible not to burst into laughter after the forgettable seventh-inning stretch, when the announcement came down in the press both: "Attention media: For record-keeping purposes, today's official paid attendance ... is zero."
It was almost possible, for a while, to forget why those of us who aren't MLB beat writers were really there -- until the postgame interview with Orioles manager Buck Showalter. After a couple of questions about what it was like to play in such a discomfiting atmosphere, a young black man with an authorized pass asked Showalter if he had any advice for Baltimore's black youths, given the events of the preceding days. The normally outspoken-to-a-fault manager chose his words carefully and honestly. "I've never been black," he said, noting that people shouldn't be so quick to give an opinion on a state of existence that they don't themselves inhabit. At the same time, he stated his wish for the city to build on the spirit of the peaceful protests, and his hope that his team could be "a rallying force for the city."
And just like that, having elicited probably the most substantive statement you could reasonably expect on the subject, the press conference shifted back to baseball. Outside the ballpark, a group of fans stood in the beautiful Beltway sun, waiting outside the players' parking lot, ever-loyal to their team, and were rewarded by shortstop J.J. Hardy signing autographs.
Just a mile to the east, another group of protesters stood peacefully in that same Beltway sun, waiting outside City Hall, ever-attached to their community, hoping to be rewarded by their government -- recognizing their pleas to be heard, their pleas for jobs, their pleas for justice, their pleas for peace.
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