Back in the late-’90s, on the way back from a game in Richmond, Va., a team called the D.C. Grays got some tremendous news. Their next game in the RBI Mid-Atlantic Tournament would be played in Baltimore. At Camden Yards, no less. Built just a few years earlier, this was incredible for the young men on that bus. I know, because I was on it. RBI, Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities was a youth outreach program designed to give kids who needed it the most more opportunities to play. That summer taught me a lot.
A week or so later, we found ourselves, a bit of a ragtag group cobbled together in D.C. who practiced across the street from what is now Union Market in Northeast, sitting in a big league clubhouse, putting on our uniforms and marveling at the copious amounts of sunflower seeds and “gator juice” as we called it, in the dugout. The field was obviously pristine, even though it felt a little small, dimensions-wise for a big league park. As a teenager, you forget that grown men play a kid’s game on the same size diamond you do.
There was one other thing. The building was basically empty.
So when I walked into Oriole Park Wednesday morning to cover the so-called Ghost Game between Baltimore and Chicago, I was instantly transported back to that time I was playing in similar conditions at the same field. It was strange then, and was strange now, too. You could hear pretty much all the interactions between coaches and players, teammates and umpires. Chatter was low, but certainly present.
Back in the 1990s, though, that experience was unforgettable. And not just for the kids. Coach Keith Stubbs, an assistant at the time, was a man in his late 20s, who’d recently moved to the area. He grew up in Newport News, Va., and his high school team had won state titles in both his junior and senior year. He had a lot of swag and energy, but being in a big league dugout was a thrill.
“Man that brought me so close to Major League Baseball. I’d never been that close, that intimate with professional baseball. It opened up my eyes, it actually helped me to get to where I am today,” Stubbs said Wednesday afternoon. “I probably was more excited about it than the kids, than you all. I didn’t let anybody know that, but I thought I had really made it in life. It didn’t matter if we won or if we lost, it was just a lot of pride involved with watching you all get a chance to play there. And again, I was probably more excited than you all.”
At the time, I played second base. I recorded an assist on a ground ball and got a base hit. I was stranded on second after a walk and my day was done. My mom waved at me from the crowd. After that day, I basically gave up the game and went on to play soccer. Baseball opportunities were a different matter back then, and with life and sports becoming more difficult to maintain, my interest in playing outside of school waned. It’s a story we’ve seen play out across the country, often at an earlier age than that for many.
“What do I remember? Probably the first thing that comes to mind is the state of baseball back then versus now. When it comes to amateur baseball. Looking at Little League Baseball, Middle School Baseball, High School Baseball. Even college baseball, how it’s changed,” said Stubbs, who now runs a developmental program called The Urban Baseball Experience and does scouting work for the Philadelphia Phillies. “Back then you didn’t have the travel team stuff that you have now. We were like … hot. Everybody wanted to be a part of it. It was associated with Major League Baseball, it was clearly affordable, it was very diverse. And MLB really really cared about it. It’s now in 220 cities, nationally and internationally.”
With the crowd being blocked out of the game and so many young people just a few miles away expressing their feelings about policing in their communities in such a public fashion, the irony was inescapable. Maybe instead of shutting people out, letting some of those embattled youth into your building, literally and figuratively could have sent a solid message to O’s fans about what it means to be from Baltimore.
Before the game, Til Strudwic was wandering outside the park with a ball cap listing all the Orioles World Series titles on it, and a faded orange shirt that said Baltimore in block letters. He wasn’t happy.
“I’ve been a season ticket holder for 35 years, and I went through the horrible Martin Luther King tragedy. I remember being an 18-year-old kid and seeing the destruction. It’s deja vu all over again, but on a much smaller scale,” Strudwic, 65, who lives in Roland Park near Loyola University said, exasperated. But he felt keeping people out was the safest move.
“I totally support it,” he said. “They had no choice, they had to do this.”
It makes you wonder what people would think if those kids had being throwing baseballs on a patch of grass instead of bricks from a cement sidewalk. Or, why they probably never had that chance in the first place.