BALTIMORE -- One year ago, three days of civil unrest and confusion resulted in the White Sox playing in one of the more bizarre games in major league history.
After city-wide riots in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death resulted in a city-wide curfew as well, the calling of the National Guard and two cancelled games, the White Sox and Baltimore Orioles became the first teams in Major League History to play a contest that was closed to the public.
No fans were allowed inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which provided a surreal backdrop that Wednesday afternoon as the Orioles crushed the White Sox 8-2.
Whether it was the lack of background noise, the audible cheers of a group of several dozen fans outside the park or the idea that baseball was played in a city where so much remained uncertain, with armed guardsmen stationed just outside the park, players involved have very distinct memories of what would have normally been a nondescript contest.
“You could hear everything,” said pitcher Carlos Rodon, who pitched a scoreless ninth inning in only the second appearance of his big league career. “I remember listening to Adam Jones out in the outfield, just like calling his own game out there like he was the umpire.
“Just real quiet. Almost like backyard baseball.”
White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton remembers he felt conflicted about playing. The White Sox had arrived in town late Sunday night, only a day after unrest outside the ballpark resulted in a smashed window at one of the venue’s restaurants.
While the area around the ballpark and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor had quieted down by Monday morning, events began to reignite that afternoon about 4-5 miles from Camden Yards.
By the time players hit the field for stretch and batting practice, police helicopters could be seen hovering in the background, sirens blared everywhere and Eaton remembers he could smell smoke from some of the fires that had been set. Monday’s game was quickly cancelled and players were ushered back to their hotel by security personnel.
Stuck in their hotel, players remember seeing from their rooms the orange glow of some of the more than 200 fires set to structures and vehicles. They awoke the next morning to the arrival Maryland Army National Guard trucks, whose armed troops lined the Inner Harbor and key points around the city.
By early Tuesday, officials from both teams tried to determine what to do. Whereas most games’ start times are determined by either the home team, umpires or MLB, this time the White Sox were also included in the process. The teams considered several options, including moving the series to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Various start times and scenarios were also also considered for the game’s start to avoid playing after the 10 p.m. EST curfew was put in place.
“We kind of looked if we wanted to play in Chicago, play here and if there was a way to avoid coming back and doing another trip,” White Sox traveling secretary Ed Cassin said. “This was kind of a special case. There was a lot of people involved.”
Manager Robin Ventura was involved in the process so he could give his players an idea of what to expect. What stands out to Ventura is how nobody made their way to the ballpark on Tuesday to check into the clubhouse or workout, etc.
Instead, players stayed in their hotel rooms and watched movies or played video games, just waiting on word of the next step.
“As a major league player or staff, you never go that many days without getting on the field, especially during the season,” Ventura said. “You didn’t do anything. You kind of just watched the news to see what was going on. That part was eerie in a way because nobody goes through that. Last time something like that was 9/11.”
Ultimately, the decision was made to play Wednesday afternoon and make up the other games in a May 29 doubleheader. While pregame activities weren’t out of the ordinary, everything changed once the game began. Players took the field for the national anthem and found the park to be empty aside from several scouts in the stands. Orioles players faked flipping balls to fans in the stands, high fiving fans and signing autographs.
But everything else was dead silent save for the crack of the bat, balls hitting the catcher’s mitt and the sound of Orioles announcer Gary Thorne booming from the announcer’s booth above when Chris Davis blasted a three-run homer in the first off Jeff Samardzija.
“We were here, it got canceled, and the next day we were like, ‘Hey we’re canceled,’” Eaton said. “Are we going to fly back tonight? Are we going to go tomorrow? What do we do? Do we play the third game?
“Not that we didn’t feel right playing, but to be honest, we didn’t feel right playing at the time because there were lives on the line and being were rioting, a lot of chaos going on in the city. But as a professional, you had to sit back and say, my job is to go out and play baseball today, and that’s what I’ve got to do in any circumstance, and that’s what we did.
“It was just super weird.”