If there’s anyone in baseball who knows what might be lying ahead for the game during these uncertain times, it’s Buck Showalter.
The former Orioles manager was the man who led his team during the only crowd-less game in Major League Baseball history — an April 29, 2015 meeting with the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards — due to the lack of security available in Baltimore during the violent protests surrounding Freddie Gray’s murder.
His Orioles defeated the White Sox 8-2 that afternoon, which salvaged the final game of a three-game series that saw the first two canceled.
A trivial consolation of sorts during one of the city’s darker times, but also a moment that was once believed to be a once-in-a-lifetime episode at a ballpark with no one but players and media on hand.
“It was something that no one had done,” Showalter told AMNewYork Metro. “A couple of innings, it was pure baseball. You could hear the announcers announcing, you didn’t have to use the phones to call the bullpen, you could just yell down there.
“You realize how many things were driven by fans’ emotions. It became such a pure game, and not necessarily in a good way. It was like instructional league or extended spring training and you were real careful about what you said, including the umpire… there was no walk-up music, there wasn’t a lot of stuff that was driving emotions on the scoreboard, no reason to announce the players.”
Five years later, Major League Baseball is facing that same reality of playing games with no fans as COVID-19 continues to spread.
The virus that has infected over 312,000 Americans and killed more than 8,500 in recent weeks forced baseball — and most major sporting leagues worldwide — to postpone its play on March 12, just two weeks before the start of the 2020 season.
There has been little clarity on when the game can return given the unpredictable nature of the virus’ spread.
An initial hope upon postponement was a forecasted return in mid-April, but that date only kept moving back to June or July.
On Saturday, United States President Donal Trump held a conference call with major American sports commissioners — including MLB’s Rob Manfred — and dictated his hope that sports could return with fans by August or September. That’s usually when baseball’s regular season is winding down.
In the days prior to President Trump’s phone call, the idea of playing in empty stadiums — whether at MLB ballparks, neutral sites, or spring-training facilities — to fit more games into a condensed season has been tabled.
This is where Showalter becomes an expert on the matter, though he doesn’t necessarily give the idea his endorsement.
Had the Orioles been forced to play without fans for an extended period of time like MLB players in 2020 might have to, Showalter believes they would have naturally lost steam.
“We knew that we were going to play with fans again, we knew that this game counted, and we knew that this was an accountability game,” Showalter recalled of his empty-stadium experience. “It’s fine for maybe a game or two, but after a while, you need that emotion at the ballpark.
“You come off a road trip or you get in at 8 AM for a 1 PM game, you need something that tells you that this really matters to a lot of people and get your juices flowing.”
In the grand scheme of things, baseball and sports are still trivial despite their importance to society, and health concerns would remain even if players took the field to empty ballparks.
“What happens if you play for two weeks with nobody in the stands and one of these players takes this virus home to their families?” Showalter asked. “That’s going to be hard to navigate.”
It’s why ultimately, Showalter isn’t keen on the baseball being rushed back any time soon.
“It’s just going to be hard to put my arms around playing without knowing what we’re dealing with or how we’ll get through it because there’s so much uncharted territory here,” he said. “If I spend all day with these people and go home to my wife and my grandkids, I couldn’t do that.
“I’m having a hard time understanding how they’re going to play this year. If there’s any unknown about what you’re dealing with, whether it be some way to keep from getting the virus, some way to treat it when you get it — if there’s not some idea of what you’re dealing with or how you’re going to deal with it in terms of timeframes, it’s going to be hard for me to see them starting up the season.”
Baseball is still a business, however, and broadcasting empty-stadium games to a public starving for sports could pay dividends to the point where viewership ratings would “be off the chart,” according to Showalter.
Should the game come back mid-summer with no fans, the manager with two decades of coaching under his belt with the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Rangers alongside the Orioles would lead a team under this philosophy:
“It’ll be a sense of urgency because you’re not going to play 162 games. So you can’t have a so-so month and recover from it,” he said. “Players and staff are going to have to understand the vessel that they can be when this happens. This isn’t going to be business as usual. There will be a certain availability that you’re going to have to be apart of.
“Every day is pretty precious.”