Exactly five years ago Wednesday, Major League Baseball experienced what is expected to be the norm if and when the 2020 season gets underway:
Playing a game without fans in the seats.
It was the afternoon of April 29, 2015, an 8-2 Orioles victory over the White Sox at Camden Yards. MLB decided the game would be played without fans because of civil unrest in the city of Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody.
Yankees reliever Zack Britton, then a standout member of the Orioles' bullpen, pitched a scoreless ninth that day and said afterward that Camden Yards felt “like a ghost town,” according to The Washington Post.
Chicago's Adam Eaton, the first batter of the game, said he “underestimated” the impact of coming to the plate in that situation in a sea of silence.
“To be honest with you, when I first went into it, I didn't think it would be a big deal,” Eaton said after the game, according to the Baltimore Sun. “There was almost this half-asleep feel because there was no energy . . . As baseball players, as teams, we feed off energy, and when there's nothing there, it's a very surreal and weird moment that I'll never forget, but I kind of wish I could.”
In recalling the game this past spring training, Britton said among the most memorable aspects of the afternoon was hearing the booming voice of Orioles TV play-by-play man Gary Thorne from the broadcast booth perched high atop the press box behind home plate. Britton was more than 400 feet away at the time.
There is nothing ideal about fan-less games, but given the choice between that and no season, players have consistently said since March that they’re on board with it.
“All [of us are] on the same page to play as many games as we possibly can,” Britton said earlier this month on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio, referring to talks between the players and owners. “And if we have to do that in empty stadiums for the safety of the public, then I think that’s the right move.”
Playing in front of no fans — at least at the start — is a centerpiece of the three potential plans that have leaked for restarting MLB, which has been officially shut down since March 13 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest came Tuesday, a plan first reported by USA Today that includes three 10-team divisions, based on geography, with the teams playing only those in their division to significantly cut down on travel.
The devil, of course, will be in the many unaddressed details. Significant among them is the availability of widespread testing to the public, and health and medical experts weighing in on just how under control the virus is.
MLB and the Players Association reached an agreement on a slew of issues relating to the shutdown March 26 — including those involving service time and prorated salaries. But one issue not addressed, and one that still hasn’t been addressed with the union, is the financial implication of playing without fans.
It’s a potential roadblock that ESPN analyst Mark Teixeira mentioned in a phone interview March 30, one that has since trickled into the spotlight.
“[If] I’m paying a dollar to a player to play in a game in an empty stadium and I'm only making 70 cents on the dollar of what I usually make . . . that's another kind of ‘off the table deal’ for the players if they have to play in empty stadiums and the owners say, ‘Well, I'm going to pay you less,’ ” Teixeira said. “That actually came straight from a player that I talked to. He said, ‘We are not cool with owners saying they want to pay us less because we’re playing in empty stadiums.’ [But] players [overall] have no problem playing in empty stadiums.”