If You Burn It, They Won’t Come

Greg Fiume/Getty Images/AFP
Greg Fiume/Getty Images/AFP

If you build it, they will come. If you burn it, they won’t.

The Baltimore Orioles play the Chicago White Sox in an empty Camden Yards today. The looters took baseball away along with bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 and rolls of Charmin.

A diamond not surrounded by fans is apparently a first in the history of Major League Baseball. Like the Boston Red Sox rising from the dead of an 0-3 deficit to defeat their arch rivals for the AL pennant or Madison Bumgarner single-handedly (that would be his left hand) winning a World Series for the San Francisco Giants, a game that nobody sees isn’t something you’re likely to see again in your lifetime.

Hurricane Irene blew away 22,000 Florida Marlins paid attendees at Sun Life Stadium in 2011. An unofficial tally counted 375 fans in the park. Late in the 1966 season, the Yankees hosted the Chicago White Sox before 413 paid spectators. Bobby Murcer and Joe Pepitone, apparently, didn’t excite the Bronx the way Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig did. On September 8, 1916, a rain delay left 23 fans in Shibe Park to watch the New York Yankees defeat the Philadelphia Athletics. But the MLB record comes from Wormtown, where the last place Worcester Ruby Legs (winning percentage .214) hosted the second-to-last-place Troy Trojans (winning percentage .422) on September 28, 1882. The Ruby Legs, alternatively known as the Brown Stockings and even less creatively as the Worcesters, attracted just six locals. Mercifully, the franchises folded after just one more game.

If a ballgame is played in a city, and nobody watches, does anybody win?

The players still collect a check even if they don’t encounter a cheer. Nearly everyone else loses a payday.

Baltimore vendors sell no hot dogs, no beers, no peanuts. Ushers seat no fans. A scalper’s task of moving tickets, normally aided by the forces of supply and demand, becomes exponentially harder (though not impossible for the more skilled track-suited entrepreneurs known for hustling non-existent seats). The bars on Eutaw Street, where a preadolescent Babe Ruth downed beers and dented baseballs, serve a few depressing day drinkers instead of an overflow of baseball revelers. Hotel rooms and lot spaces remain as empty as the park.

Who will shout “O” during the National Anthem? Does the Oriole Bird root the team on or play ostrich for the day? Will the Orioles blast “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during the seventh-inning stretch? If Chris Davis belts a dramatic, game-tying homer, does he still make a curtain call?

The eery, surreal scene answers these and other, unasked questions at 2:05 p.m. Eastern. We don’t know what to expect because a sport rooted in tradition breaks with it today. No precedent exists. No one has seen a game that no one has seen.

The ghost-town game represents a low low, though not the low, in the history of Baltimore sports. Even when the Colts played their first game in Indianapolis, Loudy Loudenslager showed up to Memorial Stadium. Nobody goes to Oriole Park at Camden Yards today.

The 45,971 empty seats at least hold one reason for optimism. You can’t sink to less than zero.