By Paul Folkemer
The Orioles didn’t have any fans to cheer for them April 29. But it didn’t stop them from topping the Chicago White Sox, 8-2, during an abbreviated one-game series.
History was made in Baltimore when, for the first time ever, a regular season MLB game was played in front of a crowd of zero. Because of ongoing riots and violence in Baltimore City, the Orioles and White Sox took the field in a game that was closed to the public. This came after the first two games of the series, scheduled for April 27 and 28, were both postponed.
The absence of fans made for a bizarre atmosphere at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles took the field not to thundering applause but to near silence, aside from the clattering of keyboards in the press box. The national anthem was a pre-recorded instrumental version rather than a live performance. There was no between-innings entertainment on the Jumbotron, and no Oriole Bird to lead cheers.
“It’s kind of like Instructional League, Gulf Coast League [or] Arizona League,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s different. I was real proud of our guys [and] their concentration level. … You are your motivator. You’ve got to be self-motivated.
“I know coming up the runway and walking out, it’s like you’re coming out for batting practice. When we hit here, nobody’s in yet. And then you realize that you’re a few minutes away from playing a Major League Baseball game that’s going to count. You try to stay focused on the competition.”
Throughout the game, every big play for the Orioles was met with little more than scattered applause from the O’s in the dugout, although there was a small but boisterous group of O’s fans outside the gate behind the center field picnic area. Some fans also watched the action from the balconies of the Hilton hotel across the street from the ballpark.
The sounds of the game were more distinct than ever, from the sharp crack of the bat every time a hitter made contact to players yelling “I got it!” on pop flies. Foul ball after foul ball clanged into the seats untouched, free from the swarms of fans normally eager to grab a souvenir.
“It was different [and] weird,” reliever Tommy Hunter said. “But it’s baseball.”
Even without a crowd to please, the Orioles’ offense put on a show. The Birds racked White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija for six runs in the bottom of the first inning. The first three batters got aboard via a walk, an error and a single, and after an Adam Jones sacrifice fly, Chris Davis blasted a towering home run that landed on Eutaw Street. In a packed ballpark, the prodigious blast would’ve brought shrieks of delight. Instead, the only thing that punctuated the silence was MASN announcer Gary Thorne’s rambunctious “Goodbye, home run!” call.
That MASN viewership wasn’t lost on the Orioles. The Birds knew that even if there was nobody in the stands to cheer them on, there were plenty of O’s fans watching and enjoying the game, looking for a diversion from a chaotic week in Baltimore.
“They’re always watching,” Jones said. “The camera’s always on. … We’re out there playing for our fans. We play for the city of Baltimore. That’s across our chests. So we try to represent them.”
The early run support was more than enough for O’s starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who kept the White Sox bats in check. Through the first four innings, Jimenez faced the minimum 12 hitters, his only blemish a second-inning single that he erased on a double play. Jimenez notched four strikeouts during that span.
The White Sox plated a pair of unearned runs in the fifth, made possible by third baseman Manny Machado’s team-leading fifth error (Machado later atoned for the miscue by hitting a solo homer in the fifth). Jimenez, unfazed, kept Chicago scoreless the rest of the way. He finished his afternoon with seven innings, allowing no earned runs and striking out six. He lowered his season ERA to 1.59, best on the team.
Jimenez acknowledged that it was strange to pitch in front of an empty stadium, but he didn’t let it throw him off his game.
“Probably after the first batter I pitched, it was just the same [as normal],” Jimenez said. “You’re a professional player. You have to find a way.”
Kevin Gausman and Zach Britton finished things off with a scoreless inning apiece, and the game was finished in a brisk two hours and three minutes. The ballpark public address system played “Orioles Magic” as the O’s congratulated each other on the field, but unlike usual, there was no crowd to sing along.
It was no ordinary game in Baltimore April 29. It was a quiet, low-key scene, akin to an intrasquad game. But the Birds’ victory counts in the standings all the same.