Thursday, April 30, 2015

Civil Liberties Strike Out in Baltimore

The Orioles and White Sox played in an empty Camden Yards in Baltimore
on April 29 because MLB decided that civil unrest made the area unsafe for fans.

America's pastime staged a piece of theater this week that seemed bizarre at the outset, but ended up creating imagery that expressed better than words or deeds how fragile American society has become.

On April 29, 2015, for the first time in the storied history of major league baseball, a regular season game was played in a stadium absent of any paying fans. Those of us who have faithfully cheered losing baseball teams for many years know all about "near empty" stadiums. But this stadium was empty not because of fan indifference but because of a Major League Baseball edict.

For much of this month, the City of Baltimore has been caught up in public protests over the death of Freddie Gray, who was arrested on April 12 and died seven days later, apparently of spinal cord injuries suffered while in police custody. This week the civil unrest turned to riots in the streets with the full complement of looting, arson, smashed and fire-bombed police cars, and a number of law enforcement personnel injured by bricks and bottles hurled at them by demonstrators.

Over the past couple of days, the civil unrest in Baltimore was joined by solidarity demonstrations in other American cities, including Washington and New York, with some of those resulting in violence and arrests. The protests were driven largely by a lack of information about what caused this particular death, along with accumulating instances of police brutality being caught on videotape all around the country.

Anyone following the news knows as much as I do about the issues in play here. There are prognosticators and commentators, politicians and preachers, mothers and kids, finger pointers and finger lifters, looters and brick throwers, peacemakers and peacebreakers, all of whom have points of view, some of them informed and others not so much.

Clearly there is something amiss in this country. The social contract between law enforcement and the people they are supposed to serve is fractured and at risk of being shattered like a broken bat. At the same time, there are violent criminal elements out there who put the lives of those officers at risk every day they put on a uniform, The only answer to this problem is resident in the communities themselves, where neighbors rout the drug dealers, where families raise their kids, where cops become allies, not agents of fear.

Easy words to type, not so easy to do.

In the midst of it all, few people are thinking about the significance of an empty baseball stadium. But since I believe that baseball imitates life, I am able to see connections that are missed by those who foolishly subscribe to the notion that baseball is "only a game."

Consider this. The previous record low attendance of paying fans at a major league baseball game occurred on September 28, 1882 when only six fans showed up for a contest between the Troy (N.Y.) Trojans and the Worcester (Mass.) Ruby Legs at the Worcester Driving Park Grounds.

The fact that such records are preserved and accessible may appear to some as evidence of the decline of Western civilization. I'm borderline on that point myself. However, the response of professional baseball, arguably the most tradition-driven sport in the world, to a matter of civil unrest suggests that something deep and serious is going on here.

Ironically, on April 25 almost 37,000 fans at the Orioles/Red Sox game were locked down for about a half hour in Camden Yards because of "ongoing public safety issues" outside the stadium. A small group of protestors had targeted the baseball game as a good place to draw attention to their cause.

With baseball games and riots playing out on the same stage, the seemingly logical step to be taken if there was a risk to fans would have been to postpone the game and make it up another day. Baseball has done that with natural disasters, inclement weather, notable deaths, national tragedies, and a variety of other reasons.

Instead, the game played on with zero fans, overturning a 133-year-old record, and creating an iconic image for the deepening social divide in this country. Like the tree falling in the forest, one wonders if they had a game and no one came is it still a game? (Well, yes. It was on television, but that begs the point.)

Both the Orioles and Major League Baseball management have been criticized for seeming to make the game more important than the tragedy. But I kind of like the gesture. A quirky thing like playing a game without a fan in the seats is a wake-up call for America. We have a huge problem as long as kids are shot in the back, choke holds are applied to unruly citizens, volunteer cops can’t distinguish between their handgun and their taser, and certain economic and ethnic groups are targeted disproportionally for traffic stops and shakedowns.

Until that stops, the words of the Constitution will be as empty as the baseball stadium.