BALTIMORE -- They played the national anthem on tape, since the decree that city officials and the team were determined to adhere to -- no fans allowed inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- apparently extended to singers, as well.
It was unsettling and eerie. The players stood on the field shifting uneasily from side to side, hands pressed to their hearts, looking every bit as if they just wanted to get on with it. As the song neared its merciful conclusion, I wondered whether anyone would dare engage in our city's magnificent, defiant and obnoxious custom of shouting "O!" during the second-to-last line of the song.
The appropriateness of that ritual has sparked considerable debate over the years. It tends to annoy visiting fans who see it as a sign of disrespect, even though "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written here, in our harbor. Shouting that one letter has become a quintessential part of Baltimore's ethos. When someone questions our tact, or pokes fun at our inelegant manners, we simply respond by sticking out our chin in rebellion. So when I heard the faint echoes of fans bellowing "O!" from outside the gates, just loud enough for the players to hear, I wanted to put my head in my hands and weep.
It's been a trying week in this city -- the place I've called home for 15 years. What happened at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Wednesday is, in many ways, the least interesting ripple from the protests and riots that sprang up in Charm City after the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray -- an African-American man who died after getting injured while in police custody. That anyone would spend 24 hours fretting over the plight of a baseball team that had to play a game in an empty stadium while a major American city struggled to maintain order in its streets seemed comical to me at first. Camden Yards is a majestic ballpark -- the perfect place to take the family for a lazy Sunday afternoon game, if you can afford it. If you can't, OPACY looks like just another playground for the wealthy. It's an easy symbol for the economic and cultural divide that exists here. The divide that's fueling a lot of that anger you're seeing on the news. State lottery tickets funded a huge chunk of its construction. A majority of those tickets, some studies have shown, were purchased by Baltimore's have-nots, people longing for a financial Hail Mary and, in turn, a better life.
Yes, the city is hurting at the moment. But its pain did not begin with Gray's death. This is about a simmering anger and frustration that's been building for decades and is now boiling over for the whole country to see. To be frank, those of us who live here aren't truly surprised by what unfolded, just saddened. Baltimore is home to some of the most affluent private schools in the country and to entire neighborhoods populated by gutted and vacant row houses, full city blocks left to rot in plain sight.
But it's impossible to talk about Baltimore in such absolutist terms. This is a city that reveres Cal Ripken and Ray Lewis, two men whose backgrounds and demeanors could not be less alike. It is shouting the "O!" during the national anthem and the pickup basketball games at Cloverdale Court near Druid Hill Park in West Baltimore. It is not the apocalyptic wasteland it's made out to be by the people who zoom past it on the Acela train between New York and D.C. For every cable news debate that took place this week in front of looping video of a burning car, there were dozens of ministers, teachers and parents walking the streets, pleading for patience.
Not that sports are completely irrelevant in the larger discussion. (In Baltimore, we have a habit of making sports part of the conversation whether it's warranted or not.) Lewis and Carmelo Anthony took to social media immediately after the riots began to plead with kids to resist joining them. And when the city's violence did dissipate in the days that followed Monday's explosion of anger, it wasn't just a simple show of brute force by the National Guard, and the Baltimore City Police Department, that restored order. It was also thanks to a large group of coaches from the city's high schools who banded together and took to the streets, calmly but firmly convincing protesters that, although their anger might be justified, their actions weren't. One of my friends, Dante Jones -- who won a state football championship as a player at Baltimore's Dunbar High School, then another as a head coach at Edmondson High School -- spent years pulling kids off street corners, steering them to class, and comforting the families and friends of the ones he couldn't save from violence. A year ago, he accepted a once-in-a-lifetime job coaching football at Dover High School in Delaware. But, heartbroken by what he saw on television Monday, Jones jumped in his car and drove to Baltimore. He immediately started pulling kids off the street, lecturing and hugging them at the same time.
"I love my city, but there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed," Jones said. "It was eating me up not being here because I know I could have made a difference. But this didn't start Saturday. This is something that's been building up for so long; at some point the pot gets so hot the lid pops off. It was close to being explosive again today. It was really close. But we talked. We listened. We got them to disperse."
A deep-seated distrust certainly exists between the young African-American men of Baltimore and the people hired to police the city, but kids here still listen to coaches, even long after they've left high school. Coaches are the rare authority figure that can offer a dose of tough love without fostering resentment.
"For the most part, the young guys, they want to be heard, to have someone finally listen to them," said Elwood Townsend, the football coach at Frederick Douglass High School. "They fall in love with the coaches the most because they'll be that guy for them when they don't have that guy at home. We try to instill the values that we grew up on, and let them know that this is not what Freddie Gray would want, or anyone else that died in vain would want."
Townsend, a warm but imposing figure, has a motto printed on the business cards that he's always handing out as he's trying to connect with people in the city. It cuts to the heart of one of Baltimore's most important issues: It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
"I've been at Douglass eight years, and in that time, I've had guys that came in and couldn't play football their first year because of their grades or their behavior," Townsend said. "And now? They're graduating. This year alone, I had 15 seniors and 11 of them signed to play college football somewhere. That's a testament that kids want to do better, they want to make better opportunities for their families, they just need a little help."
It's an issue Orioles center fielder Adam Jones has tried to help out with, another narrative you might not have heard much of this week. He has built two rec centers in the city and is working on a third. "The youth are hurting, as the older guys, the older community owe it to the youth to continue to educate them, continue to strengthen them, continue to be by their sides," Jones said. "That's what they need. They need a shoulder to cry on. I've said to the youth: Your frustration is warranted. It's understandable. Your actions, I don't think, are acceptable."
People were destroying and looting their own communities this week. It cannot be denied. Those scars will linger for years. But there were also hundreds and hundreds of people calling for nonviolent protests. Coppin State student-athletes spent most of Tuesday cleaning up the area by Mondawmin Mall that was looted Monday. That might be less-than-compelling television, but it speaks strongly to the spirit of our city.
Will Barton -- now a shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets but not that long ago a skinny hoops prodigy growing up in the city -- also jumped on social media and put out the call to anyone willing to listen. He was hosting an impromptu block party at the city's famous Cloverdale Courts.
The goal? Just listen to each other. Just try to heal. At least 500 people turned up for an afternoon filled with dancing, light-hearted pickup basketball and lots of hugging. Kids wrote inspirational messages with chalk on the court. I snapped a picture of one: White + Black = Together We Succeed.
"A love for my city is what inspired this," Barton said. "It means everything to me. It's molded me, and shaped me, and made me the man I am today. I've got family still living here. How could I not come out like this at a time like this? People need each other, and I feel like I need to be here just to let the kids know that I believe in them and we're going to get through it together."
At one point during Barton's block party barbecue, Carmichael Cannady, one of the men who helped organize the event with Barton, grabbed a microphone and proposed that the entire gathering join together and march down McCulloh Street to North Avenue, to the block where some of the worst rioting had taken place. Cannady wanted us to serve as an example that a large group of people could protest in this city without hurting anyone, could express anger without destroying anything. "We're not going to let the cops harass us or bother us because we're going to be peaceful and we're going to walk as a family," Cannady said. "Take someone's hand, especially if you see a child who needs one."
We strolled past the blocks of row houses with boarded-up windows, past the liquor stores and churches, the delis and barbershops, until eventually we walked past a row of cops dressed in full riot gear. Neither side said much. All you could hear were footsteps, and helicopters buzzing overhead.
This too is my Baltimore, where you don't know whether to shout in defiance or quietly weep in frustration.