Adaptation is the essence for any baseball player. The 162 game season is a grandiose spectrum of emotion, endurance, triumph, and heartache. Adjustments determine success and failure as they attempt to establish a rhythm. The first two months of the season can feel like an extension of Spring Training as players ease into routines and prepare themselves for the marathon that is regular season baseball, but for the Baltimore Orioles their schedule took an unorthodox turn due to the death of Freddy Gray, in a case where current events became intertwined with baseball.
On the heels of an appearance in the American League Championship Series a year ago, the Orioles appeared poised to equal their previous success. Despite the departures of Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz in free agency, the Orioles retained a pitching staff, which ranked third in the American League with a 3.42 earned run average. With the return of Manny Machado and the contributions of mainstays J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones, the Orioles appeared to maintain their stake atop the AL East. On paper a team can appear dominant but once the games begin, new challenges arise. Injuries to Hardy, Matt Wieters, Ryan Flaherty, and Jonathan Schoop left the Orioles reliant on reinforcements with mixed results. Former backup catcher Caleb Joseph has reinvigorated a stagnant offense with a .286/.392/.444 slash line, easing the loss of Wieters. Others came in the form of Everth Cabrera and Jimmy Paredes, each of whom have been slow coming out of the gates. The formidable starting rotation saw negative early returns from Bud Norris and Chris Tillman, each of whom combined for a 7.50 ERA. The Orioles were facing their own aches and pains trying to stay afloat in the eastern division before true agony displaced both the team and the emotions of an early season.
Depression, frustration, and anger are emotions faced in varying degrees throughout our everyday lives. Transformation of feelings can evolve as progresses and primarily when lives are lost. Conflicts of doubt, skepticism, and irate fervor emerged following the death of Baltimore native Freddy Gray on April 19, 2015, after police intervention. Gray had been initially arrested for carrying an illegal switchblade and accused negligence by those selected to protect and serve the community, eradicating all semblance of trust. Six days later the tension increased in magnitude, echoing the scene in the Missouri suburb of Ferguson nearly one year ago. Civilians flooded the streets of Baltimore, including Eutaw Street, exercising their right to assemble as civil disobedience gave way to riots, endangering those inside Camden Yards on this particular evening.
Inside the doors of Camden Yards, the Orioles found themselves tied with the Boston Red Sox at 3 heading into the top half of the 10th inning when reliever Brad Brach surrendered a solo home run to Xander Bogaerts. The Orioles would claw their way back in the bottom of the inning, culminating with a walk-off home run by reserve outfielder David Lough. With potential danger outside the ballpark the Orioles placed the fans on lockdown, with none permitted to exit Camden Yards until a sufficient amount of time passed. Though the extra inning game mitigated the length of time, personal security had been compromised. The situation in the city grew in intensity as bedlam and chaos reigned through protest, effectively shutting down Baltimore and creating lasting images etched in minds causing endless amount of opinion and debate.
Following the Orioles 18-7 bludgeoning of the rival Red Sox the next day, the scene in Baltimore continued to intensify and with the burial of Gray at the opening of the week, personal safety became an essential concern. The Baltimore Orioles and Commissioner’s Office sought viable alternatives to complete their three game series against the Chicago White Sox. After briefly considering Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia and nearby Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. a significant amount of time passed absent of a resolution. With first pitch time a mere hours away and a lack of consensus, the Orioles proceeded to postpone the first two games of their series due to security issues going back to the drawing board attempting to salvage the final game of the contest, reaching a progressive and potentially historic conclusion.
With a 10 PM curfew placed on the city of Baltimore and lingering limitations regarding security, the Orioles chose to play the April 29th affair at 2 PM, with the two previous games made up as part of a doubleheader on May 28th. Unable to secure the ballpark and resonant ongoing tension, the contest would become the first game in the history of Major League Baseball played without fans in attendance. At bat music and public address announcements would not be played and conducted, while players, coaches, umpires, and media members were the lone individuals permitted into the park. Undaunted by the situation, the Orioles proceeded for six first inning runs off White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija, highlighted by a Chris Davis home run landing onto Eutaw Street with a see of fans veering their eyes through the locked gates in right field, witnessing their club’s historic 8-2 victory with official attendance reported as zero. The unorthodox circumstances caused great discussion from Orioles brass. Team COO John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, justified the protesters’ cause, surmising that individual safety supersedes baseball. “There’s a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere, who don’t have jobs and are losing economic, civil and legal rights”, Angelos said. “And this makes inconvenience at a ball game irrelevant”, (CBSNews.com).
Regardless of divergent opinions, the major league schedule needed to proceed as usual. With a greater window of time to schedule a contingency plan, Major League Baseball moved the weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Orioles would be considered the home team, receiving all gate proceeds, with general admission tickets costing just fifteen dollars apiece. After playing just two games within a six day span, the Orioles pitching staff, ranking in the bottom third of the American League proceeded to allow just four runs during the three game series, behind the efforts of Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, and Wei-Yin Chen. The Orioles would take two of three from the Rays in front of a crowd saluting the visiting team. The unique challenges and arduous situation according to manager Buck Showalter was emblematic of playing of Major League Baseball, where individuals are trained to withstand any form of adversity. “I think people forget how many challenges these guys go through”, Showalter said. We play games at 11:15 at night at Yankee Stadium, 11 AM in Boston. Obviously this is a different scenario. This is a small price to pay, compared to the challenges in Baltimore.”
The elongated nature of the 162 games can sometimes create a sheltered atmosphere. Often times, the focus becomes squarely on the action occurring between the white lines. Distress and hardship emerge from injuries, slumps, or poor performance. The business of baseball encompasses the entire thought process and greater societal concerns become secondary until tragedy strikes. The turbulent week encountered by the Baltimore Orioles reminds of us the greater concerns faced in society such as security, expression, and public trust. The Orioles are currently on a six game road trip in New York City, facing the Mets and Yankees, refocusing their priorities. Ultimately the responsibilities for each player are the ones written in their contract and adapt to any situation. “Buck’s words to the ballclub were, there is a lot of serious stuff going on in the city that will take a while to recover,” Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne said. “If the players focus on the game they will be ok.” With the Orioles record hovering around the .500 mark, the challenges with the pitching staff and inconsistent offensive production linger. The commonalities of being a professional baseball afford the chance for the Orioles to reestablish normalcy, while making incremental improvements as the season progresses to return to the top of the AL East.