Five years ago today, a baseball game was played in Baltimore. There’s nothing odd about that — the Orioles have been playing baseball in Baltimore since 1954. The box score doesn’t look out of place with any other game from that season. Chris Davis hit a mammoth home run in the first inning; Jeff Samardzija took the loss, allowing eight runs (seven earned). It was an altogether unremarkable 8-2 victory for the home side. But one aspect of the box score stands out among the hundreds of thousands of games in Major League Baseball history. The official recorded attendance of this game? “Not given.”
The game between the Orioles and the White Sox five years ago was the first, and still the only, Major League Baseball game played behind closed doors. After the arrest, abuse, and subsequent death of 25-year old Freddie Grey in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, Baltimorans took to the streets to protest the injustices of police brutality. The clashes between police and protesters soon turned violent. Fearful for the safety of fans, players, and media personnel, MLB cancelled the first two games of the series. The third game would go on as scheduled, but fans would be barred from entering the stadium.
The circumstances facing MLB are far more dire than that April day five years ago. The season has already been delayed for a month due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and Jeff Passan of ESPN reports that if the 2020 season happens–and that’s still a big if–it’s not likely to begin until June, and will almost certainly be played behind closed doors.
That situation would be a bitter pill for baseball fans. Readers of this blog know that one of our favorite aspects of the game is the ballpark experience. Bringing back live baseball without the ability to watch it in person feels like a Pyrrhic victory. It is as if we’ve been gifted an Italian sports car, but none of us know how to drive stick.
But if that’s the only way to bring baseball back in 2020, I wanted to answer a simple question: is it worth it? How distracting or noticeable is the absence of fans cheering in the cavernous stadiums? I rewatched the 2015 Orioles-White Sox game from five years ago to get a sense of what this year might look like.
A visit to a ballpark triggers all five human senses. You see the action on the field, the masses of people decked out in jerseys, ballcaps, and all manner of paraphernalia, the lush and vibrant green of the playing field. You smell the hot dogs, the burgers, the monstrous concoctions of ballpark food, and despite the protests of your wallet and your arteries, you soon deign to taste them too. You hear the sounds — the crack of the bat on a thunderous home run, the shouts of the umpire ringing up the batter for strike three, the low ambient murmur of a stadium set to erupt in cheers. When those cheers come, you hear them, yes — but you feel them too. You feel the excitement or the anguish, the joy or the despair, the swell of emotion that ebbs and flows across nine innings of action. In that sense, whether your team wins or loses, no visit to the ballpark is unfulfilling.
Watching games on TV instantly eliminates two of those senses. Unless you have a particularly odoriferous or succulent flatscreen TV, you’ll have to rely on sights, sounds, and feelings to experience a baseball game.
If you turned on the Orioles-White Sox game in 2015 without any context or knowledge of the situation, you would immediately notice: this is different. The backdrop behind home plate is a blank slate of empty seats, a dark green-screen before CGI has worked its magic. When the TV director cuts to overhead shots from behind home plate to trace foul balls and home runs, the camera captures the staggering emptiness of the stadium. Where our eyes are used to the visual white noise of fans in their seats, of endless swathes of color and humanity, there is only emptiness.
It’s an even more staggering experience audibly. With no murmurs and hollers from the stands, every sound on the field is amplified. The thud of the ball striking the catcher’s mitt hits like a base drum; the crack of the bat like the sharp rap of a snare. Every foul ball that would normally find its way into the hands of a small child now clangs and ricochets amongst the empty seats.
With no fans, the confines feel less alive. One struggles to imagine the intense experience of watching gladiatorial games in the Colosseum because we have no point of reference. We are awed by the vast expanse of the arena, but it feels lifeless. A baseball game with no fans feels the same way, but that listlessness feels more foreign. We’ve all seen baseball games, whether on TV or in person. We know how the crowd swells when a ball is hit high and deep; we know the way it breaks like a wave on the shore when that ball clears the fence.
In this game, the Orioles rattled off six runs in the bottom of the first inning. Jimmy Paredes beat out a throw to first on a potential double-play ball. No one cheered. Adam Jones hit a sac fly to drive in Alejandro de Aza for the game’s first run. There was no response when the scoreboard ticked over to read “1-0.” Chris Davis pounded a home run down the right field line. His trot round the bases felt more apologetic than celebratory, his feat of incredible athleticism reduced to a mundane occurrence in the absence of the crowd’s adulation.
As the game went on, one could almost forget the abnormality of the experience. The commentary of the announcers filled in the emptiness of the space. The camera focused on the deft gloves of the infielders or the otherworldly movement of the pitches. It felt, all in all, like a baseball game. But inevitably the camera would pan out, and there once again would be the sea of dark green seats, a testament to a stadium that typically feels so full of life.
We come to baseball for an escape. Even if baseball doesn’t help us heal, it gives us a space where it’s okay to cheer again, to feel normal again, to hope again. As we struggle through this global pandemic, MLB has been adamant that it wants to play the 2020 season to give people an escape from the spectre of the coronavirus. And yes, having a season and being able to watch live baseball again would bring so much joy to so many people in America and around the world.
But don’t sell this as an escape. Because every time a ball goes foul, every time the camera pans into the stands, every time a home run goes unapplauded, we’ll remember why.