1. At about half past one, the sun is beginning to break through from behind a blockade of threatening storm clouds. It’s May 11, and baseball is returning to Baltimore for the first time in nearly two weeks.
A couple miles north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the O’s will host the Toronto Blue Jays later that evening, children giggle and shout across the yard to one another at the Uptown Academy.
A bench outside, like those at bus stops around the Charm City, reads “Baltimore: The Greatest City in America.”
Along North Avenue, two men ride mowers through an overgrown green space across from the Baltimore City Public Schools Office of Student Records. A sign above the grass reads “No ball playing allowed.”
2. The corner of Penn and North is bustling with car and foot traffic on a steamy afternoon. The only sign of anything awry is the boards covering the windows of the CVS — yes, that CVS — on the northeast corner of the intersection. The drug store became the focal point of many news reports on Monday, April 27. But the fate and purpose of the building across the street tells a far more interesting story.
The Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library remained open throughout the events that Monday. It was not looted, not destroyed, not even scratched. Two weeks later, with the CVS scheduled to be repaired and reopened but shuttered for now, the community hub is the distribution point for food, diapers and formula donated by grocery chain Whole Foods.
“A lot of people here don’t drive, and a lot of them can’t afford Whole Foods,” says a local artist who goes by G.G., who is at the library this Monday, two weeks after the unrest.
She grew up in the neighborhood and lives just blocks away, and the arrests that occurred on the first night of the clashes with police happened right on her front steps. While she’s sad to see what’s happened, she believes it’s helped the city unify around a long overdue cause.
“I don’t know if we really want things to go back to normal,” she says. “But it’s a lot quieter.”
3. Down along the steady, slow slope of Pennsylvania Avenue as it leads to downtown Baltimore, there are two overgrown youth baseball fields, surfaces that don’t look like they’ve been mowed since last year.
It’s a rare sight in the middle of the urban jungle, diamonds full of green grass, weeds sprouting through the dirt infield, stretching for hundreds of feet. It’s the type of facility baseball has been harping on building in inner cities, through projects like the Harlem RBI or the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. But it lies in disrepair next to a community center.
“The whole family comes here,” says Djuana Turner, a volunteer who has been helping out at the center for almost 20 years. “Everybody around here, we love each other, try to look out for each other.”
Yes, that includes the drug dealers, she says, but also the upstanding citizens. Everyone knows everyone. Her daughter attended high school with Freddie Gray’s sister.
Turner tells her own story of police overreach, of a time she claims she was thrown to the ground by an officer despite simply being a bystander. But she also tells of redemption, of the officer tracking her down for three days in order to apologize.
“They just started fixing the streets,” says Turner, looking out at the grass. “There’s no time to fix the recreation centers.”
The tee ball season doesn’t start until Wednesday; until May 13; until school is nearly out for summer; until two days after Orioles Reopening Day.
4. “We know we’re not going to solve all of Baltimore’s problems by telling people to go to a baseball game.”
Andrew Ellington stands on the corner across from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, in front of the row of bars that serve as pre and postgame gathering spots for fans. One in particular was the site of a particularly ugly conflict between fans and protesters on April 25, one of the reasons the Orioles played to an empty house a week ago Wednesday. Ellington, an Annapolis attorney, is here conducting yet another interview — he’s lost track of the exact number — as one of the organizers of Reopening Day.
He’s here with Sam Angell, the brainchild of Reopening Day, a fellow Maryland grad and lifetime Orioles fan. Beyond a drive to get people to the ballpark, the idea was in place to help the businesses that suffered from the lost games. Soon, they added a food drive, bringing three of those businesses to serve as drop-off points, donating to the Maryland Food Bank.
Angell, who works in the sports information department at Drexel University, calls himself “just a guy with a Facebook account and a few media contacts.” But his idea clearly struck a nerve, getting heavy response on both Facebook and Twitter.
“Our goal is really just to create that sense of community and create that sense of optimism and positive feelings moving forward,” says Angell. “I think baseball, throughout history, (has shown it) can bring communities together.”
Ellington experienced 9/11 and its aftermath as a New Yorker, seeing first-hand how a baseball team could help a city rally together during a difficult time.
“I thought the idea was great, for Reopening Day, to really give everybody a chance to support something for Baltimore when there are so many things trying to tear the city apart right now,” he says.
They have gotten plenty of press for the groundswell of support for the idea — with shout-outs from everyone from Jim Palmer to Jim Hunter — but are realistic about the limits of how much their efforts can help.
“It’s a step forward,” says Ellington. “It’s not a huge leap forward. It’s not going to solve Baltimore’s significant issues, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
5. The problems in Baltimore run deeper than the lost revenue of a few businesses, but that doesn’t mean the lost openings didn’t hurt. A big part of the push behind Reopening Day was the idea that fans could help support the businesses that had taken a hit from the decision to move the games.
Pickles manager Craig Ziegenhein was thrilled to be approached with the idea, especially after losing what promised to be some major days of business.
“Obviously, we were all for it,” says Ziegenhein, whose establishment was one of three that signed on to serve as drop-off points for a food drive for the Maryland Food Bank. “The crowd right now is the best Monday we’ve had in a while.”
Katelyn Haines is a server at Pratt Street Ale House, another one of the bars that participated in the food drive. Along with many of her coworkers, she was cut from a handful of shifts during what promised to be a busy weekend before the curfew went into effect and the games were moved. Originally from Howard County, she lives just blocks from work, and felt the trepidation in the normally bustling neighborhood.
“People were scared to come here,” she says, but notes that the attitude has already turned a corner all around town over the past weekend. “Even just going out, crowds have been a lot bigger than they’ve been this past week.”
6. Monday night really was more than just the return of baseball. Just like Opening Day, it was a Monday. Just like Opening Day, it was a contest against the Toronto Blue Jays. But with the new opportunity, the Orioles won this game, unlike their season opener.
“Opening Day every year brings such a sense of optimism and enthusiasm, and I really felt like that was something that Baltimore needed,” says Angell. “So I thought, well, let’s just make this a second Opening Day.”
Playing their first home game in front of fans since April 26,
wearing special “Baltimore” jerseys, the Orioles plated three first-inning runs thanks to home runs from Manny Machado and Chris Davis. They never trailed en route to a 5-2 victory.
But in baseball, and in life, tomorrow presents another round of challenges, another foe to tackle. Today’s win is registered, then quickly put aside. More challenges, more serious ones, lie ahead.
“We’re not trying to sugarcoat the situation,” says Ellington. “We’re also not ignoring that there are significant issues that Baltimore faces. We’re not trying to distract from it. We’re just trying to give people, for one night, a reason to celebrate Baltimore.”
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