BALTIMORE — The smokey aroma of pulled pork from Boog Powell’s BBQ stand wasn’t wafting over the crowds Wednesday in downtown Baltimore’s Eutaw Street.
But rock music blared from speakers at Camden Yards as the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox took batting practice in an eerily empty stadium with a capacity for nearly 46,000 rowdy fans.
Like most days, Wednesday’s game opened with the national anthem. John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” was played at the seventh-inning stretch.
But the stands were empty except for a few big-league scouts behind home plate. For the first time in Major League Baseball, fans were shut out of a game. No one chased foul balls hit into the stands, though Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph briefly pretended to sign autographs. First baseman Chris Davis hurled a ball to the imaginary fans.
As protests and occasional violent unrest rocked Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, the Orioles took an unprecedented step in American sports history by barring fans for the final game of their series against the White Sox. The first two games were rescheduled for next month.
“Baseball is filled with the strange, but this is beyond strange,” said Major League Baseball’s official historian, John Thorn.
The move came amid a surreal week in a town nicknamed “Charm City,” the burial place of a master of the bizarre, Edgar Allen Poe, who once said: “There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.”
At noon Wednesday, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert in support of the community outside the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a short drive from some of the city’s worst looting.
“It seems we could all use a little music in our lives right about now,” the orchestra said on its Facebook page, adding the hashtag #BSOPeace.
The orchestra quoted famed conductor Leonard Bernstein: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
Marin Alsop, the orchestra’s music director, posted on Twitter and Facebook on Tuesday that she was “heartbroken for our dear city.”
“With so much need alongside so much possibility, I hope we can use any opportunities we get to set an example and inspire others to join us in trying to change the world,” she said.
On Monday, as fires were set and protesters clashed with police in East Baltimore, a Michael Jackson impersonator sang “Man In The Mirror” atop a van.
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways,” the impersonator, Dimitri Reeves, sang on the roof of the van as protesters and police in riot gear faced off.
“If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”
Why that song?
“We have to start with ourselves,” he said. “We can’t just go and act up. Peaceful protest is the answer. Who can really fight against dancing and singing?”
Reeves, 22, said some of the more vocal protesters climbed on the van and joined him. A few people were brought to tears.
“I was trying to send a positive message,” Reeves said. “My thought was to bring something positive to the area. … Maybe it helped.”
Thorn, the baseball historian, said the previous low-attendance record was set on September 28, 1882, when a team from Worcester, Massachusetts, played their rivals from Troy, New York, before six fans.
“The teams were bad, the weather was bad and the clubs had been notified the week before that they were about to become disenfranchised for the 1883 season,” Thorn said.
Thorn recalled a quote that former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent uttered after an earthquake in San Francisco interrupted the 1989 World Series.
“It has become very clear to all of us in Major League Baseball that our concerns, our issue, is a modest one in this tragedy,” Vincent said. “Baseball is not the highest priority to be dealt with. We want to be very sensitive as to the state of life in this community. The great tragedy is, it coincides with our modest little sporting event.”
At 2:05 p.m. at Camden Yards, moments before the first pitch in another modest little sporting event, about 100 or so fans attempted to catch snippets of the game through gates outside the stadium. The Orioles took the field in the desolate stadium.
Earlier, Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones told reporters: “It’s not an easy time for anybody no matter what race you are. … The kids are hurting.”
At game time, the national anthem was played. The game was televised and live-streamed free by MLB.
The lead-off batter for the White Sox grounded out for the first out of the historic game, a play greeted with silence in the cavernous stadium.
Adam Eaton of the White Sox had tweeted earlier: “We are gonna do our best to take the crowd out of it early..Wish us luck.”
But it was the Orioles who jumped to an early 7-0 lead, including a towering three-run homerun by first baseman Chris Davis that drew distant cheers from fans outside the gates.
Later, the final out in an 8-2 Orioles win was made. While entertaining, the team’s 10th win of the young season didn’t matter so much.