Nobody Night, fathers, sons and Baltimore

Fans watch through a fence outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards as the Baltimore Orioles play the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday. The game was played in an empty ballpark amid unrest in the city over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Baltimore’s Camden Yards seating area wasn’t quite empty Wednesday. One advance scout showed up a little bit after another to double the unofficial attendance at the Orioles’ 8-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.

Eerie silence around an active diamond brought back memories of the Charleston RiverDogs’ Nobody Night hijinks, a hit 2002 promotion designed to draw the smallest crowd in professional baseball history.

One of these ballgames was fun.

The other was frightening, a glimpse at the connection between the lack of engaged male role models in urban America and baseball’s nearly vanished impact in those communities.

The minor league RiverDogs got laughs from fans who gathered between Burke High School and Brittlebank Park before entering The Joe in the fifth inning. That was after the “official” attendance had been recorded as zero.

The big league Orioles got only a few cheers. Those were from fans limited to a knot-hole view because of security concerns after protests and rioting in reaction to the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Baseball and all sports are ideally uniting, with success stories ranging from Jackie Robinson to Nobody Night and fields of dreams all over the country.

The Orioles-White Sox game failed to unite a hot dog with mustard. Camden Yards was a vacuum of separation from the greater concern. The ill-conceived decision to play sans fans cast an image of fear and self-importance, never a good combo.

Why not allow spectators? Afraid of a few minor disruptions or signs?

So what?

Better to remain part of society than close the door.

Major League Baseball has been struggling to relate to black Americans on and off the field for a few decades now. Dwindling percentages on big league rosters reflect issues with college baseball’s limit of 11.7 scholarships and the high cost of travel baseball. Some changes have been made to encourage black participation, including affordable inner-city showcases for high school prospects and the Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities (RBI) program.

But in 2013 the only black American in the World Series was Quintin Berry, who appeared as a pinch-runner for the Boston Red Sox against the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s quite a contrast from the 1979 World Series involving the Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates and including Al Bumbry, Eddie Murray, Ken Singleton, Lee May, Pat Kelly, Willie Stargell, Bill Madlock, Bill Robinson, Dave Parker, John Milner, Lee Lacy, Mike Easler, Matt Alexander, Grant Jackson and Jim Bibby.

It’s not all baseball’s fault, of course. As a skill sport requiring patient instruction and a feel for tradition, love of the game typically means the kind of father-figure influence increasingly lacking in vast areas of urban America.

More fathers and sons playing catch isn’t a catch-all solution, but it’s a great start.

Mutual respect and understanding are always helpful, too.

Older folks who still like humming along to favorite 1970s “protest songs” such as Neil Young’s scorching “Ohio” lyrics and The Rolling Stones’ defiant “Street Fighting Man” seem quick to judge kids protesting in the street today.

And political leaders and the media can probably do a better job of pointing out that the policeman at the center of a tragic teen death in Ferguson, Mo., was cleared by one of the most activist justice departments in U.S. history.

Can’t we come together on some of this?

Most of this?

Buck Showalter thinks so.

“We’ve made quite a statement as a city. Some good, some bad,” the Orioles manager said Wednesday in the best thing to come out of Nobody Day. “But now let’s get on with taking the statement we’ve made and creating a positive. … I want to be a rallying force for the city.”

Showalter, a Florida native and former Mississippi State player, knows that sports can help with healing. But often the lessons must be passed down. This was apparent in January at the annual Charleston RiverDogs’ Hot Stove Banquet. Addressing a packed ballroom at the Charleston Marriott, master of ceremonies Dean Stephens asked a question.

“How many of you learned to love baseball from your fathers?”

Most of the hands in the room went up.

Nobody would ask that question in Baltimore this week. But somebody should fix the answer.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff