Fanless Orioles game an unusual experience for ballplayers

BALTIMORE -- When Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis wasn't circling the bases to the sound of silence Wednesday afternoon, he was making the best of a bizarre situation by practicing a time-honored baseball ritual. On his way off the field at the end of each inning, Davis flipped balls to imaginary fans at Camden Yards before descending the steps to the home dugout.

"I threw three or four into the lower seats," Davis recalled, "and then I gave some love to the fans in the upper deck."

It's often said that if ballplayers want to succeed in the big leagues, they have to learn to make adjustments. Due to a set of circumstances wholly independent of baseball, the Orioles and Chicago White Sox took that concept to an entirely different level.

After several days of rioting, looting and confrontations in the streets in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray, baseball returned to Camden Yards in a hermetically-sealed environment Wednesday. For the safety of fans -- and an accompanying desire not to overtax law enforcement resources -- Major League Baseball decreed that the Orioles and White Sox would play before an empty stadium.

The Orioles won 8-2, behind a three-run homer by Davis, an exceptional outing by starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez and a 10-hit onslaught in five innings against Chicago starter Jeff Samardzija. The official attendance was zero. And now the O's will leave town for Tampa Bay, where they'll wear their white uniforms as the de facto "home" team in a three-game series that's been relocated on the fly.

MLB shoehorned Wednesday's game into the schedule because the White Sox were only supposed to make one visit to Baltimore this season and it would have been difficult-to-nearly-impossible to find room to make up three postponed games. But the empty stadium lent a sense of eeriness to the proceedings that permeated both dugouts.

With no crowd noise or energy to distract from events on the field, each crack of the bat and umpire's call was magnified. As much as the players tried to envision what it would be like, there was no way they could prepare for Camden Yards being transformed into the baseball equivalent of Sunday afternoon at the Masters.

"It was tougher to stay focused on the game than I thought it would be," Baltimore closer Zach Britton said. "You could hear a pin drop, and the noise just echoed off the [B&O] warehouse and the entire stadium. It's almost worse when you're standing out there on the mound and you can hear yourself think. It makes you appreciate the fans who come out and support you.

"It was weird. You've got this glare off the stands with no one there, and foul balls off the bleachers bouncing everywhere. We were kind of joking about it out in the bullpen. In spring training, guys are just trying to get their work in. But this was in a big-league game that matters. And it felt like we were playing baseball in a ghost town."

Baseball is not and never has been an instant gratification sport. Even the best prospects learn to hit a curveball or tinker with a changeup grip on back fields in the low minors. So in a sense, Wednesday's game brought the players back to their roots. But most of the Orioles and White Sox had left their formative years behind long ago and never anticipated returning.

"This was like a 'B' game in spring training, or the Arizona League when I first signed," Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones said. "Those were the only comparisons I can make. But not with that much money on the field."

The Orioles' stadium entertainment crew tried to inject as much normalcy into the proceedings as possible. Players stood at rapt attention during a prerecorded version of the national anthem. The PA system played classic rock during batting practice and between innings. Pitch counts and velocity readings flashed on the small scoreboard in left-center field, and John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" played over the ballpark loudspeakers as is customary during the seventh-inning stretch.

But the absence of crowd noise created a different sort of soundtrack than usual. When White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu waved off his teammates to catch a pop fly in the sixth inning, he yelled "I got it!'' rather than the Spanish equivalent "Yo lo tengo!" At the same time, Baltimore right fielder Delmon Young churned down the line with first-base coach Wayne Kirby exhorting him to "Run it out! Run it out!"

Late in the game, the public address announcer in the press box shared the news that Davis' home run was the 80th in Camden Yards history to land on Eutaw Street, and the first since Detroit's Victor Martinez achieved the feat on May 13, 2014. It was an interesting piece of trivia that resonated all the way down to the playing field.

"I was in the middle of catching a pitch when I heard that, and I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty interesting. Good for that guy,'" Joseph said. "You don't normally hear that kind of stuff.

"Between innings was the most awkward part of the game. You're used to the Kiss-Cam and all the other between-innings entertainment. Sometimes we take for granted the impact that the fans have on the game. It really showed today."

Although there were no fans in the park, a group of Orioles diehards congregated behind the wrought iron gates beyond the fence in left-center field and occasionally erupted in chants and cheers. Another contingent of fans watched from the Hilton hotel across the street, where a big orange "Go Orioles'' sign hung from a balcony railing. Several Baltimore players made it a point to give a shout-out to those fans for their support.

Fan-player synergy was a recurrent theme throughout the day in the home clubhouse at Camden Yards. For a couple of days, the Baltimore players passed National Guardsmen, law enforcement officers and other public servants on their commute to work. After two days off, they arrived Wednesday to a solitary stadium and the opportunity to make a statement: They're standing with their community, no matter how ugly things get or how many knocks Baltimore takes on the national stage.

"The Orioles support the city of Baltimore," Jones said. "We're out there playing for the fans. We play for the city of Baltimore. That's what's across our chests, so we're trying to represent them in the best way."

The Orioles didn't leave for Florida with the sounds of cheers ringing in their ears, but they knew their fans were watching at home on television Wednesday. That feeling of gratification will give them comfort and competitive fuel as they watch Baltimore try to heal from afar.