Baseball. It has been an American tradition for almost 150 years, whether being played in the backlots of New Jersey in the 1860s or in iconic buildings such as Ebbets Field, Fenway Park or The House That Ruth Built. There are many, many iconic moments; the first World Series in 1903 and Lou Gehrig’s memorable, impassioned retirement speech on the grounds of Yankee Stadium in 1939 are particularly notable. And yet, in all it’s glory – with Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Clayton Kershaw leading the pack of today’s superstars and tomorrow’s potential Hall-Of-Famers – we are often reminded how insignificant the game can really be. Especially when it collides with the real world.
In 1968, opening day was postponed by two days due to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Originally scheduled for April 8th, it was moved to the 10th, one day after King’s funeral. On October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake occurred just minutes before the start of Game 3 of the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants and caused significant damage to the Giants’ home playing field Candlestick Park. It was ultimately delayed for 10 days. In 2001, Commissioner Bug Selig ordered all games postponed for a week in the aftermath of the attack on the twin towers. This caused a ripple effect. Cal Ripken Jr.’s last game of his career was pushed back to October 6th and for the first time in baseball history, the World Series ended in November. But none of these compared to what happened on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. It was a first for baseball and it happened to one of the game’s most storied franchises.
The Baltimore Orioles are not only the heart and soul of the city, but are also one of baseball’s oldest continual franchises. Established in 1901 as an original member of the American League – often called the Junior circuit as it was established 25 years after the National League – they were originally known as the Milwaukee Brewers (not to be confused with the current team of the same team). The following year they relocated to St. Louis and were known as the St. Louis Browns for 52 seasons before moving to Baltimore in 1954, where they have been ever since. (Interestingly enough, there was another team called the Baltimore Orioles in 1901. However, they went bankrupt the very next year and were replaced by the New York Highlanders in 1903. In 1913, the Highlanders changed their name to the New York Yankees. So there’s that). With their roots firmly entrenched in Maryland, the Orioles went on to win three World Series in 1966, 1970 and 1983, along with a handful of AL Pennants and AL East Division Titles.
Baltimore has also been home to some of the greatest players the game has ever seen. Currently, there are six players enshrined in Cooperstown wearing an Orioles Cap – Legendary manager Earl Weaver, pitcher Jim Palmer, third baseman Brooks Robinson, outfielder Frank Robinson (who later became the first African-American manager in the big leagues), slugging first baseman Eddie Murray, and perhaps the greatest Oriole of all time, the “Iron Man” of baseball Cal Ripken Jr. Two other players were elected as members of the St. Louis Browns – hit king George Sisler, and Bobby Wallace. Several other greats have spent time in a Browns/Orioles uniform including early stars Rogers Hornsby and Hoyt Wilhelm, manager Whitey Herzog, and recent inductees Roberto Alomar and General Manager Pat Gillick. Even Mr. October Reggie Jackson spent a season in orange and black.
For fans, baseball is more the just a game, and the teams and players are not only role models, but are also often what brings a city and a nation together in crucial times. In 2013, the Red Sox rallied around their city after the marathon bombings and ultimately won the World Series. When baseball resumed after 9/11, New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza hit a home run in the first game at Shea Stadium since play resumed and the crowd went wild. For the city of Baltimore, nothing is bigger than Adam Jones and their beloved Orioles.
All this history makes the events of the last few days disheartening and somewhat bizarre, if not totally unsurprising. After postponing the first two games of the three games series against the Chicago White Sox, Major League Baseball, in consultation with Baltimore Police Department, elected to play game three closed to the public. Without spectators. Yes, you read that right. For the first time since Major League Baseball officially formed in the 1870s, a game was played with no official spectators. (For record-keeping purposes the attendance was zero, although there were media and a few scouts in the stands). First baseman Chris Davis and closer Zach Britton talked about the surreal nature of it all and how players from both teams made noises from the dugout in order to preserve some sort of atmosphere. Manager Buck Showalter said he could hear the ring of the bullpen phone when he called it. Perhaps play-by-play announcer Jim Hunter put it best saying the hardest part was being distracted by the lack of distractions.
And then there were the speeches. As opposed to David Ortiz’ impassioned, expletive-laden speech in 2013 after the bombings, Orioles centre fielder, unofficial leader, captain, and face of the franchise Adam Jones was more nuanced in his response saying that he can relate to many of the youth protesting and can sympathize with them as he grew up in similar poor circumstances in San Diego, while also condemning the violence that is ravaging the city just feet from his home ballpark. “I say to the youth, your frustration is warranted. The actions, I don’t think are acceptable. If you come from where they come from, you understand, but ruining the community that you have to live in is never the answer. … This is their cry. This isn’t a cry that is acceptable, but this is their cry and therefore, we have to understand it.” He said in a 15-minute press conference before the start of the first no-audience game in major league history. (By the way, the previous record low for attendance was six). Manager Buck Showalter took a slightly different approach, imploring people not to say “I know what it’s like” because most of us, in fact, do not, Showalter himself said he can’t know what it is like because he has never been black. Wise words from the smartest manager in baseball.
But perhaps the best speech – and the most surprising and most political – came from higher up – from Executive Vice President and COO (and son of Owner Peter Angelos) John Angelos. Over the weekend, Angelos took to Twitter to respond to broadcaster Brett Holland’s claims that the protests are counterproductive.
Full remarks below:
Brett, speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.
That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.
The innocent working families of all backgrounds whose lives and dreams have been cut short by excessive violence, surveillance, and other abuses of the Bill of Rights by government pay the true price, and ultimate price, and one that far exceeds the importances of any kids’ game played tonight, or ever, at Camden Yards. We need to keep in mind people are suffering and dying around the U.S., and while we are thankful no one was injured at Camden Yards, there is a far bigger picture for poor Americans in Baltimore and everywhere who don’t have jobs and are losing economic civil and legal rights, and this makes inconvenience at a ballgame irrelevant in light of the needless suffering government is inflicting upon ordinary Americans.
Wow. In a sport where conservative values often reign supreme, and that did not allow blacks to play before 1947, Angelos’ words speak not only of changing ideals in the sports world, but in society as a whole. In a world where the big personalities of players rule the day (See Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and current cry-baby Yordano Ventura), owners and executives don’t often get the chance to speak on non-baseball related matters. And when they do, we often don’t listen because they are not the ones out on the field. They are not the ones making big money or hitting moonshots or making diving stops. But they are the ones paying. The teams are very much connected to them, and when the team plays badly, they look bad. If we often look to the players for healing and solace why can’t we extend that to those who work behind the scenes as well.
Many of us think of baseball as more than just a game. “The Gods of baseball” is a common phrase and I myself have often joked that I was raised in the “Church of Baseball”. A sport is often our first love, for me it was. Our favourite teams become obsessions and our favourite players super-human beings from another planet. And yet, all it takes is the death of a black teenager in police custody to remind us that our heroes are mere mortals and our favourite pastime, simply a game. And while baseball will always serve as an important healing mechanism, it is important for fans to understand its context in the greater landscape of society. Perhaps the comments made by Angelos will inspire other execs, managers, players and even broadcasters to speak out for social change and progress and help shape baseball’s cultural identity for the next 150 years. With the era of juicing and PED use hopefully behind it, baseball can re-focus and re-affirm itself as a culturally aware institution. Players and coaches understand that they are looked upon as role models, pillars of the communities they play in. What better way to serve your community then to bring about social change? The Orioles and league officials at large do not have to remain silent. In fact, they shouldn’t. Baseball has a voice and it can speak to the masses; now it needs to use it. It could use a bit of a makeover.
We Are Baltimore!