'Take me out with the crowd'

When Baltimore Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander smoked an opposite-field, three-run jack over the left field fence Saturday evening against the Washington Nationals, I raised a fist skyward from the living room couch. I may or may not have yelled something. 

I consider this celebratory reaction of mine to be involuntary, as the Os took a 5-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish against the reigning MLB champions, with their third homer of the top of the eighth inning. 

I’ve loved the Orioles for as long as I can remember and was born late enough that the franchise’s three World Series titles came before I existed (Their last one came in 1983). I’m with Birdland for better or for worse. 

But Saturday was the first time I became even remotely emotionally invested in the outcome of a sporting event in at least five months since the coronavirus outbreak disrupted athletics. The spark must still reside within me, but the fire won’t start.

Something is missing. 

Yes, sports are back. It started with NASCAR in late spring and other professional sports leagues have recently geared back up. The NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer are playing in bubble environments with multiple teams in one location, with no fans allowed. 

If you’ve ever made a habit of checking boxscores for attendance figures, you won’t find one under that Os-Nats game in Washington. Nobody was there. 

When Santander rounded the bases, the only audible sounds from the field were Orioles  players cheering from the dugout. Most of the players and coaches were wearing face coverings. 

On a normal Battle of the Beltways Saturday night, many thousands of orange-and-black-clad visiting supporters would have been on hand in Nationals Park, rising to their collective feet for the consecutive pinch-hit home runs that preceded Santander’s. 

I’ve been aware for the entirety of my adult life that hitting a ball or scoring a goal represents only a portion of why I love sports. It’s a communal experience; the same sort of energy you feel at a concert or theatre production. 

Whoever wrote “Take me out to the ballgame” added the second line of the chorus for a reason. 

In the case of sports, it’s my community vs. yours. Pride is at stake. The crowd can have a profound impact on the outcome of a contest. And though there are plenty of exceptions, it’s mostly in good fun. 

So, no, the total sports experience cannot be replicated with partial attendance, and pumped-in crowd noise on TV broadcasts is wholly inauthentic. 

It’s just not the same without them; without us. 

It probably won’t be the same again until next year, at best. 

But that’s OK. Sometimes we learn to appreciate things more when they’re gone. 

One day, the crowd will go wild again. 

Until then, this - whatever this is - will have to do.