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Orioles try to help Baltimore heal, while fans just try to watch them win

BALTIMORE—Matt Fouse could see his seats at Camden Yards. There they were, right along the first-base side. He chose them mainly because they are close to the family-friendly bathrooms with a changing table for his seven-month-old daughter, Jolene. On this gloriously warm day with a cloud-speckled sky, Fouse planned to be sitting in them, watching the Orioles play the Chicago White Sox.

Instead, he was leaning against the black wrought-iron gate along Camden Street, staring inside the ballpark.

"It's weird," he chuckled, rocking Jolene in his stroller. "It's too nice of a day not to watch an Orioles game. I should be in there. We should be in there. We should all be in there. But we're out here."

He knew why. At this point, when Fouse and his daughter rolled up to the corner of Camden and South Eutaw streets at just before 1 p.m. EDT, everyone knew. Not even 48 hours earlier, parts of the city were ablaze. Police in riot gear faced off against city residents in protests turned violent, where one side threw bricks and bottles and the other threw tear gas.

In the wake of the death of 25-year-old resident Freddie Gray—who suffered a severed spinal cord and crushed voice box after being arrested on April 12 in the western part of the city—Baltimore exploded in rage, anger and protests. On Monday, following Gray's funeral, the country watched as a CVS drugstore burned and looters pillaged neighborhood stores. On Tuesday, relative calm was restored as the city began the process of cleaning up the damage and attempting to heal wounds that have been open for too long.

And on Wednesday, the Orioles tried to give Charm City a distraction. The team would resume a halted series against the White Sox in the afternoon, following two days of postponement.

Orioles players sound off on playing at empty Camden Yards

There was, of course, one caveat: The game would be closed to the public, because of safety measures being taken elsewhere in the city. It was the first time in Major League Baseball history that a game was contested in front of zero fans.

"It's not the easiest," Baltimore centerfielder Adam Jones said before Wednesday's game about playing in front of no fans. "But I understand."

Orioles manager Buck Showalter echoed those sentiments: "No issues at all, we're citizens of this city, too."

So, three hours before first pitch of the Orioles' 8-2 win over the White Sox, Brooks Robinson Plaza was silent. The small city block across the street from Camden Yards, made up of bars—Sliders Bar & Grille, The Bullpen and Pickles Pub—is normally bustling before a game. Wednesday afternoon, there was nothing.

Sliders had a sign out front advertising itself as open, but had only one customer. Pickles' only sign of life was a bouncer out front. And The Bullpen? It was still boarded up with plywood from the weekend's initial protests. Camden Street, shut down as it usually is during home games, served only as a congregating place for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of the game.

"We did some volunteer cleanup around the city and then decided to come and support the team," said Les Bowman, of Chincoteague, Va., who was among the first fans at the gate with his brother, Larry.

Janet Jeffers, a lifestyle photographer with an office in the Bromo Seltzer Tower up Eutaw Street, said the whole scene was eerie. Normally, on game days, she can see the ballpark and the fan concourse on Eutaw fill up in the hours before a game. As she walked down to the plaza behind the centerfield scoreboard, there was none of that.

"This city has been hit with a lot, the last few days," she said.

That's what made the game itself so bizarre to stomach.

Orioles fans pride themselves on being loud, but as players from both teams took batting practice, only the sounds of police helicopters and emergency vehicle sirens could be heard over batted balls.

"This is their cry," Jones said before the game, issuing a message to the protesters. "This isn't a cry that is acceptable, but this is their cry and therefore we have to understand it. They need hugs. They need love. They need support. As much as I can give, as much as I know people on the opposition can give, I'm going to try and give as much as I can, because the city needs it."

Jones, like his manager and teammates, hoped that even though none of their fans could physically be inside the stadium for Wednesday's game, seeing baseball might provide them some relief. Both teams tried to bring some levity to the day's game—saying they'd have to watch what they said because umpires could hear every word or that the opposition would know when a reliever was getting up because you could hear the bullpen phone ring.

And it was true: There was a lot to be heard without the din of a normal baseball game.

Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph signs autographs for imaginary fans

When Orioles first baseman Chris Davis smashed a three-run home run onto Eutaw Street in rightfield in the bottom of the first inning, the were only baseball sounds—the crack of the bat, the pop of the ball landing on the brick. It was so quiet that Orioles TV play-by-play man Gary Thorne could be heard doing his call, "GOODBYE! HOME RUN!" inside the park.

Baltimore put up six runs in the first inning, making the rest of the day a relative breeze. Third baseman Manny Machado added another home run in the fifth to pad the lead. Orioles starter Ubaldo Jimenez allowed only three hits in seven innings of work. Two hours and three minutes after the first pitch, Baltimore had won. The baseball part of it seemed normal. It was the rest of the day that wasn't.

"It was pretty deafening, the first couple innings," Davis said of the silence during the game. "It was kind of surreal before the game started. But when we took the field, it kind of set in that nobody was in the stands."

There were some lighthearted moments along the way. After a couple of innings in the field, Davis would toss the ball into the stands, pretending there were fans there to catch it. Catcher Caleb Joseph mimicked signing autographs and waving to fans before the game began. During warmups, Joshua Melton, who works in the ballpark's marketing department, was putting new ads on the rotating ad boards behind home plate.

"Corporate still looks at the game," he said, laughing.

On WJZ, the Orioles' radio broadcast home, announcer Joe Angel joked: "I'm afraid I may be speaking too loudly."

"It was just weird," Baltimore closer Zach Britton said. "You had the glare of the empty bleachers. Every time a foul ball would go into the stands, you hear it bounce around. It was just weird to be in a big-league game—that matters—it was just really weird to have that feel of a ghost town in a baseball park."

The Orioles, of course, weren't alone on this picture-perfect afternoon of sunny skies and mid-70s temperatures.

By the time first pitch was thrown, over 100 fans had gathered on Camden Street along the stretch of fencing where the field is visible. On a few floors of the Hilton across the street, fans jammed out onto balconies. They chanted and cheered, even continuing the tradition of yelling "O!" during the national anthem. After the first pitch was thrown, fan Romeo Santos mimicked an Oriole Park vendor with a "Peanuts! Get your peanuts here!" call.

Behind him, Michael Fish of Towson, was ready. He whipped out an oversized bag of peanuts as the crowd celebrated.

"All we're missing is someone handing out beer and hot dogs," Fish said.

Showalter said of the small crowd outside on the street, saying: "They were heard."

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

​But among the crowd on Camden Street, there was a sobering reminder about why the gates were locked shut—37-year-old Baltimore resident Brendan Hurson, a public defender, held a large sign that read: DON'T FORGET FREDDIE GRAY.

"The Orioles support the city of Baltimore," Jones said afterward, when asked what the country might take away from the day's events. "In everything, we support the city of Baltimore. We're out there playing for the fans, not just our families. We play for the fans. We play for the city of Baltimore. That's what's across our chests and we're trying to represent them in the best way."

That was all that Fouse could ask when he and his daughter showed up to the ballpark. He knew they wouldn't be allowed in, but he was hoping that he could feel just a little bit better about the city he's called home for 13 years than he did when he woke up. He lives in Charles Village, a relatively peaceful community 2 1/2 miles east of where Monday's riots began. His street is like many in Baltimore—tree-lined and neighborly, but two blocks over he can hear gunshots from one of East Baltimore's many crime-riddled neighborhoods.

He knows why the ballpark had to be closed. He supports that decision. But he wished that it could've been a place for a fractured city to begin to heal together, not be on the outside looking in.

"Just think of what message could've been sent if we all were allowed in," Fouse said. "It's too nice of a day in Baltimore, not to be at a baseball game."

He then picked Jolene out of her stroller, walked closer to the black iron fence and pressed his face up to it.

"It's too nice of a day."