BALTIMORE - Everything was so clear and sharp: the crack of the bat, the thwock of the ball into the catcher's mitt, the clip-clop of cleats against a dugout's concrete steps and floor. Every noise had an easily identifiable source.
You could hear a photographer's camera click and know exactly where he was positioned. You could hear an infielder call for a pop-up and feel as if you, too, should peel off and let him take it. You could see a home run cut through the sky, clear the right-field bleachers, land on a city street . . . and hear nothing in the aftermath. This must be what baseball sounds like in a ballplayer's dreams. This is what baseball sounded like amid an American nightmare.
The Baltimore Orioles beat the Chicago White Sox, 8-2, on Wednesday afternoon. No one saw the game. Everyone saw the game. There were no fans inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, because no fans were permitted inside the ballpark. For the first time in major-league history, the official attendance of a game was zero. Camden Yards' official capacity is 45,971. Three scouts sat behind home plate with their radar guns and their notebooks. The other 45,968 seats, each painted green, were empty.
The last note of the national anthem, a prerecorded version, seemed to last forever. The scoreboard flashed the players' faces and statistics. Beyond the left-center-field wall, fans gathered at a gate and peered through to watch the game. Others congregated on balconies at a Hilton hotel across the street, flying a "Go Orioles" banner from a railing. The scene was an oddity born of atrocity.
On Monday, this city buried Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died mysteriously in police custody earlier this month, and that night, Baltimore began to burn: riots; looting; 235 arrests made; fires set in 144 vehicles and 15 buildings, according to the Baltimore Sun; the power of peaceful protest overwhelmed by anger and opportunism; Maryland state troopers and the National Guard moving in to restore order.
For the sake of public safety, and after having postponed two games already, the Orioles, the White Sox, and Major League Baseball agreed to play Wednesday at 2 p.m. instead of 7:05. The Orioles also elected to relocate what would have been three home games this weekend against the Tampa Bay Rays; the teams will play instead at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. A team spokesman said the Orioles had not calculated how much revenue, from parking fees and concessions, these decisions would cost the franchise, and to the Orioles' credit, no one affiliated with them seemed concerned with such considerations.
"Sports unite communities," Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones said, "and to have fans, it would be awesome so it can give them three hours of distraction away from what's really going on. That's what sports brings. It's a small distraction to the real world, and the people of Baltimore need that. At the same time, the safety of those people [is] very important."
Without the expectant crowds gathering around Camden Yards, the area took on a relative silence and stillness that mirrored the game's. There was little traffic on the streets nearby and no police presence in sight, though a Humvee with STATE TROOPERS emblazoned on its hull trundled off an I-95 ramp by the ballpark. It was a far cry from what the players had experienced Monday and Tuesday as they drove to and from the park, as they watched the flames and chaos on TV.
"It was more like a war zone than I expected," said Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who hit a three-run home run Wednesday. "I think we made the right move. I really do."
Across the street on Washington Boulevard, where a brawl between protesters and Orioles fans on Saturday night had prefaced Monday's destruction, Pickles Pub was open for business. The bar is a popular pregame and postgame hangout in the summer, a fixture in Baltimore City since 1988. An hour and a half before first pitch Wednesday, there were just three customers inside. On its marquee was a message: "We provide 'space' for food, beverage, and fun times."
Its manager, Craig Ziegenhein, smiled a knowing smile when he was asked about the sentence's meaning, about the way a small business's owners had thumbed their noses at the rioters and at Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had said that city officials would "give those who wished to destroy space to do that."
"The space word was used an awful lot," Ziegenhein said. "We just thought people would recognize that."
Inside the park, Jones offered a perspective that reflected the complexity of what has happened here and why. He spoke on behalf of a community that is right to want answers for Gray's death, that has seen a succession of plagues - corrupt government institutions, a dysfunctional educational system, the breakdown of the family - foster disillusionment and hopelessness within its people.
"This is their cry," said Jones, who grew up in inner-city San Diego. "Obviously this isn't a cry that's acceptable, but this is their cry. We have to understand it."
One needed only to listen and look out over that vacant ballpark for a sense of what those people and forces had wrought. They played a baseball game here Wednesday, and it was like no baseball game before it. They told people to stay away, for their own good. How sensible. How memorable. How sad.