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Orioles-White Sox game closed to fans will be odd, historic for MLB

Wednesday's game between the Orioles and White Sox in Baltimore, which will be closed to the fans, will represent an unprecedented moment in the history of the game.

For the first time in major league history, a game will be played in front of nobody—or at least, no paying fans. In the wake of the postponements of Monday's and Tuesday's games at Camden Yards between the Orioles and White Sox due to violent protests in Baltimore, Major League Baseball has approved the Orioles' decision to close Wednesday's 2:05 p.m. game to the public. Players, umpires, team officials and media will be the only ones in attendance for the game, which will be televised on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network but won’t be streamed locally, in accordance with MLB Advanced Media’s blackout rules..

The Orioles last played on Sunday against the Red Sox. After consulting with city and local officials as well as MLB, their games on Monday and Tuesday evenings were both postponed out of public safety concerns. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on Monday and activated the National Guard in an attempt to restore order. Those two postponed games will be made up as a single-admission doubleheader on May 28. Additionally, the team's three-game series with the Rays—originally scheduled to be played at Camden Yards from Friday, May 1 to Sunday, May 3—has been moved to Tropicana Field. The Orioles will serve as the home team and bat last, and they will receive the gate for those three games, minus the expenses incurred by the Rays. The movement of that series will lengthen a Baltimore road trip that already includes series against both New York teams. After Wednesday’s game, the Orioles won’t play at Camden Yards again until May 11, when they face the Blue Jays.

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As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, such a game without any fan admittance has never occurred in major league history, according to an MLB source who consulted with baseball historians on the subject. "Behind closed doors" games have taken place many times in international soccer, usually in connection to violence by fans, though other reasons, such as inclement weather and an outbreak of swine flu, have led to such situations as well. Earlier this month, in the Russian Premier League, Torpedo Moscow were ordered to play two games to an empty stadium after fans displayed a Nazi banner. In the United States, empty-house games have happened in high school and college basketball. Memorably, a measles outbreak forced the 1989 Siena College basketball team to play nine games, including three in the ECAC North Atlantic Conference tournament, under quarantine conditions; the team won the tournament and gained an NCAA tournament berth for the first time in school history.

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Via John Thorn, MLB's official historian, the official low-attendance record in the majors was six (yes, six), at a September 28, 1882 game at Worcester. That game, between the Troy Trojans and Worcester Ruby Legs, was the penultimate one in an 18–66 season for the latter franchise, which folded after the season. In modern MLB history, an April 17, 1979 game between the Athletics and Mariners at Oakland Coliseum drew an official paid attendance of 653, though reports suggest the actual number of fans who showed up was around 250. In the wake of Hurricane Irene, an August 23, 2011 game between the Marlins and Reds at Sun Life Stadium in Miami featured an unofficial headcount of just 347, though the official paid attendance was reported at 22,050.

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Zero-attendance games aren't entirely unprecedented in baseball. On April 15, 1998, the Yankees played a 4 1/2-inning exhibition with their Double A affiliate, the Norwich Navigators, at Yankee Stadium, as city inspectors examined the ballpark in the wake of the collapse of a 500-pound steel expansion joint on the third-base side. On July 8, 2002, the South Atlantic League's Charleston Riverdogs created a "Nobody Night" promotion for their game against the Columbus Red Stixx. The Riverdogs padlocked the gates save for employees, scouts and media until the fifth inning, as fans spied the action through fences and via ladders, and once the game was official and the attendance recorded as zero, they were finally let in. On June 14, 2008, the International League's Iowa Cubs hosted the Nashville Sounds for a zero-attendance game due to flooding that had forced the evacuation of Des Moines; the city allowed the game so that the team wouldn't have to play too many makeup-doubleheaders.

Beyond the isolated instances of low-attendance games, this isn't the first time that rioting or other public safety concerns have forced the postponement of MLB games. On July 25, 1967, a game between the Orioles and Tigers was postponed due to rioting in Detroit, with the next two games moved to Baltimore. In the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, Opening Day—which had been scheduled for April 8—was postponed until two days later, a day after King’s funeral. The 1989 World Series between the Giants and A’s was disrupted by an Oct. 17 earthquake; play didn’t resume until 10 days later. In April/May 1992, the Dodgers had four games postponed in the wake of the rioting following the Rodney King verdict. The 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. forced a week of postponed games in 2001. On April 19, 2013, the Red Sox postponed their game at Fenway Park in support of law enforcement efforts to apprehend Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; they were successful later that night.

In the grand scheme of things, the procession of the baseball season is a comparatively minor matter relative to the safety of the general public. Just the same, being able to play games as scheduled is a sign of normalcy and order. Here’s hoping both return to Baltimore as soon as possible.