Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez throws to Chicago White Sox's Adam Eaton in the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. The game was played in an empty Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Patrick Semansky/AP
This afternoon, an innocuous matchup between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox became the first Major League Baseball game in history to be closed to the public and played in an empty stadium. Monday and Tuesday’s games between the Orioles and White Sox had already been postponed amid the ongoing riots across Baltimore. MLB’s press release cited the same thought process leading to the closed-door game: “After conferring with local officials, it was determined that Wednesday afternoon’s game should be played without fan admittance in order to minimize safety concerns.”
Empty stadium games occur in European soccer often enough not to be seen as unicorns—but those games are most often mandated punishments in response to supporters’ racist acts or fights with other fans. In American professional sports, instances of deliberately empty stadiums are exceedingly rare. The 1989 North Atlantic Conference (now America East Conference) men’s basketball tournament shut out spectators under measles quarantine. In 2002, the Charleston Riverdogs, a Tampa Bay Class A affiliate, played in front of an empty stadium for five innings during “Nobody Night,” a publicity stunt promotion typical of minor league baseball. And in 2008, the Triple-A Iowa Cubs and Nashville Sounds played a game with only scouts and essential employees in attendance due to flooding concerns in Des Moines.
But for professional baseball, the previous record low for paid attendance appears to be six patrons, back in September 1882 for the Worcesters of Worcester, MA. Today’s game was the first time in the history of the four major American professional sports leagues that a game was played to an intentionally empty stadium. “As far as we can tell, that is unprecedented,” says Jacob Pomrenke, Web Editor for SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. “It’s never happened before in Major League Baseball.”
One member of the Orioles front office has taken an admirable public stance on the civil unrest in Baltimore—before any escalating violence in the streets. COO John Angelos, son of Orioles owner Peter Angelos, responded to a radio broadcaster on Twitter with an eloquent defense of protestors.
But if that’s the case, why even play the game at all? Monday and Tuesday’s games had already been shifted to a late-May doubleheader, and this weekend’s series with the Tampa Bay Rays has been relocated to Tropicana Field in St. Petersberg, Florida. “Part of the appeal of baseball is, as [former] Orioles manager Earl Weaver once said, ‘We do this every day,’” says Pomrenke.
Granted, there is historical precedent for postponing games due to civil unrest. Major League Baseball postponed Opening Day of the 1968 season due to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral—but only after Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates refused to play, a sentiment echoed by the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson and others. And the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict in 1992 forced the Dodgers to postpone four games in a row, while the Lakers, Clippers, and even the San Francisco Giants all moved or postponed games as well.
That still leaves today’s empty stadium game as unique among the tens of thousands of baseball games in history. The decision to play behind closed doors was made ostensibly to ensure public safety while maintaining the integrity of the schedule. But eerily, the game was still televised and streamed on MLB.tv, which will meant that whatever audience surrounds a mid-afternoon businessman special were gawking and laughing at the peculiar silence of professional American sports with no spectators. It’s also not great optics for the league, according to Bill Savage, a SABR member and Associate Professor at Northwestern University. “If it’s not safe for fans to come to the game, but it’s safe for players,” says Savage, “that reinforces the fact that fans and players live in different universes.”
To Savage, the televised spectacle of an empty stadium sends a message about “the relative importance of urban unrest in relation to economic activity. Everyone else in town might have to shut down, but [they’re] going to bus in 50 ballplayers, 10 coaches, four umpires and some clubhouse guys and play a ballgame in an empty stadium to fulfill contractual obligations to television.”
And that, more than anything, is likely the reason for the ultimate call of “play ball!” Despite John Angelos’ eloquence, he’s also the President of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which is 90 percent owned by the Baltimore Orioles, and which broadcasted today’s game. In fact, in 2013 the Orioles were valued at $1.12 billion, due in large part to MASN.
As a lifelong Cubs fan, Savage doesn’t pass up a chance to joke that “the White Sox are used to playing in front of empty stadiums.” But when that emptiness becomes a symbol of broadcast contracts being prioritized over common sense, the league might wish it didn’t have the spectacle streaming across the Internet, quiet as the Field of Dreams cornfield.