No fans for MLB games? It's happened before

Omnisport

Five years ago this week, the first game in an empty stadium was played in the 145-year history of the major leagues. By all accounts, it was an awkward experience and something major league baseball hoped to never repeat.

The first worldwide pandemic in over a century has made baseball without fans a very real possibility once again.

The April 28, 2015 matchup between the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards became the first game played with no fans in attendance. 

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Looting and rioting in Baltimore following the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who sustained a fatal spinal injury while in police custody, led the first two games of that series to be postponed.

A decision was made to play the series finale but with no fans in attendance for safety reasons. The starting time of the game was moved up five hours to 2:05 p.m. with the city under a 10 pm-to-5 am. curfew.

The game itself was most memorable for finishing in just two hours and three minutes, tied for the fifth-fastest game that season. Chris Davis hit a three-run homer during a six-run first inning off Jeff Samardzija and the Orioles cruised to an 8-2 victory. 

With the coronavirus pandemic having delayed the start of this season, MLB is evaluating several different scenarios to get the 2020 season underway. 

Putting all 30 teams in Arizona was one idea that has been discussed and another would station teams in one of three hubs located in Florida, Arizona and Texas. The latest idea floated would have a season start in late June with teams playing in their own major-league ballparks. 

Regardless of locations, which teams end up where and an actual start date, it's clear at this point that games would at least begin with no fans in attendance to prevent the potential spread of the virus. 

It's impossible to predict how playing a full season - or what takes the place of a full season – with no fans in 2020 will affect players and their performance. Some players clearly thrive playing in front of their own fans and some struggle to maintain that level in road games. 

Certain cities have the reputation of being extra hard on opposing players – New York, Boston and Philadelphia come to mind. Will having no Yankees fans in the stands to scream obscenities at visiting players end up improving the fortunes of road teams in the Bronx or wherever the Yankees end up playing?

Buck Showalter was the Orioles manager during the 2015 no-fans game and has reservations about baseball being played in empty ballparks. 

"You need people there and saying, 'Hey, it's important what you're doing. We're counting on you," Showalter said on ESPN Radio on Wednesday. "You need that emotional flicker, so to speak, that makes you realise why you do all these things, especially in baseball, where you play games seven days a week. We need that emotion."

With no fans and crowd noise, those watching on TV should be able to hear what is being said by players on the field. A heated argument between a manager and umpire will become immediately more entertaining. Whoever is in control of the censor button should be ready to act quickly. 

One of the players who took part in the 2015 game in Baltimore is current Yankees reliever Zack Britton, who pitched one scoreless inning.

"That was tough," Britton said on Wednesday. "Obviously, a completely different circumstance, but it wasn't fun to not have your home crowd there. It almost felt like a backyard game to an extent."

Although that game had a somewhat eerie atmosphere, it still had some lighter moments.

Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph tipped his cap to the imaginary crowd and pretended to sign autographs, while Davis tossed baseballs into empty seats. 

"It was the strangest thing," Joseph said. "I was catching a major league game, and I could hear the announcements being made in the press box. I had never been able to hear that before. One of the announcements was some interesting fact, and I'm thinking 'That's so cool. I didn't know that.'"

The Orioles kept up their tradition of playing John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," during the seventh-inning stretch and players could be heard yelling "I've got it" while claiming a flyball.

"We're doing the right thing," Davis said at the time. "I'm not real happy about playing in an empty stadium. That's one of the reasons that we look forward to coming home so much, playing in front of our fans. But we also understand there's a bigger picture here."

Baseball was secondary then and it is again now, with everyone's health and safety taking precedence. Still, the return of the United States' national pastime would be gladly welcomed back in whatever form deemed necessary. 

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