The Baltimore Orioles played against the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium today. The Orioles won, but no one was there to cheer.
The head of Major League Baseball Robert D. Manfred decided this week that it would be safer for fans that the game proceed without spectators in the stands, and the game made history for being the first ever closed to the public.
How did we get here? What does a baseball game say about the status quo in America?
On April 12th, 25-year-old Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police, allegedly for possession of a switchblade. He was handcuffed and put in the back of a police van. Within the next 45 minutes, his spine was almost completely severed at the neck, leaving him in a coma. He died a week later. The police department still has not been able to explain what happened.
Baltimore's black residents, already beaten down by decades of police brutality, deserve answers. They had not received any by Monday — the day of Gray's funeral — when a violent riot erupted. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency, bringing the National Guard and police from neighboring counties and states onto the streets of Baltimore in a scene reminiscent of the events in Ferguson.
A day at the ballpark against the backdrop of a battered city is surreal, but it’s also telling. Though people are dying on our streets, our institutions would rather have us cling to a fantasy of Americana that leaves them out.
Whatever good intent the MLB may have, the decision to hold the game at all was about money. Pennant races aside, the Orioles already stand to lose more than $300,000 in revenue on ticket sales alone, and would lose more if the game were canceled. But both the MLB commissioner and governor are only reacting to a flashpoint, not the actual problems afflicting communities in Baltimore. No one with a clear view of the issues can argue that financial losses at a ball game can compare to the loss of life and livelihood happening outside Camden Yards and across the country.
"Inconvenience at a ball game is irrelevant."
"We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the US," Orioles COO John Angelos tweeted. "And while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights. And this makes inconvenience at a ball game irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans."
Still, we had baseball. Men paid millions to hit a ball around a field still played, locked in a fortress, away from a calmed yet tense city still gripped by abiding desperation. There was even color commentary. But who was this game for? Certainly not for the fans — they were locked out. It wasn’t for the Baltimore just outside Camden Yards, which is currently occupied by soldiers. And it wasn’t for Freddie Gray or any one of the black and brown men and women brutalized by police, because they couldn’t watch.
So what does an empty baseball stadium mean? It means regular Americans can't sit idly by, eating hot dogs and drinking beer, while the city around them suffers. Lock-outs won't protect anyone in this crisis anymore than lock-ins.
In a speech at the White House on Tuesday, President Obama said that while we cannot excuse the criminal activities on the ground, to witness the unrest in Baltimore is to witness people rail against a system that disenfranchises them and their communities. Dismantling that system means not going back to business as usual.
"Everybody will feign concern until the riots go away."
"If we think that we're just going to send the police to do the dirty work of containing the problems that arise there without, as a nation and as a society, saying, 'What can we do to change those communities, to help lift up those communities and give those kids opportunity,' then we're not going to solve this problem," Obama said. "And we'll go through the same cycles of periodic conflicts between the police and communities, and the occasional riots in the streets, and everybody will feign concern until it goes away and we just go about our business as usual."
Business as usual is a baseball game on any other day. It’s a game, like the one played today, that serves no one.