What is going on in Baltimore right now defies classification. No matter how much everyone keeps trying to turn what has been happening in Baltimore into evidence that his or her personal worldview has been proven correct, events keep stubbornly resisting any singular narrative, any crude "explanation." It is tragic. It is destructive. It is chaotic. It is also, in parts, perhaps a necessary response. It contains moments of deep sadness, as well of moments of spontaneous and unexpected beauty and joy.
It is not simply a disruption of our daily lives: It is a reflection of it. It is an open American wound in one of our great American cities, and any attempt to conscribe some "lesson" to be learned, some overarching A-to-B "The More You Know" takeaway is an insult to the density of the situation both in Baltimore and the rest of the country. (The president's response Tuesday on this was telling; he actually apologized for giving such a long answer.) Life is impossibly confounding, from every angle -- the best you can do is just try to have empathy for every individual human being and admit that none of us can truly know anything. I can't boil it down to any conceivable essence without losing its bottomless complexity, and neither can you. Distrust those who try. They are attempting to sell you something.
But this is a sports column. Specifically, it is about baseball. Wednesday afternoon, born from this maddening American spectacle, one of the strangest things in baseball history is going to happen. They're going to play a game with no fans.
I think because of the seriousness of the real-world situation that has caused this unprecedented baseball event, there has understandably been some resistance to really look at the madness of what is happening Wednesday. Talking about its oddness can make you appear as if you don't appreciate the magnitude of what's happening outside of the ballpark. But let us resist this urge. One can chew gum and have somber thoughts about the American condition at the same time.
Really, this situation boggles the mind. Before today, it would have never even occurred to me that such a thing could actually exist. And now it's a reality. A Major League Baseball game, in the year 2015, will be closed to the public. There were fans at my 3-year-old's soccer game on Saturday, and those kids didn't even know they were playing a sport. This is a baseball game with no fans.
You don't realize, until there is something as strange as a baseball game with no fans, just how much the whole experience is geared toward us, the fans. I mean, I know intellectually they play baseball games because people watch them, but it never seems that way when you're actually watching one. Players, wisely, rarely interact with the fans; they're focused on playing an extremely difficult sport. Managers do what they can to block out the noise, and Lord knows, umpires do, lest they lose their minds. Sometimes it can feel like we're watching a theater production, or a stage play: We're there, but no one wants to admit it.
But erase us from the game -- wipe us completely out -- and suddenly, an ordinary single baseball game turns absurd.
This is a sport in which everyone stops after the top half of the seventh inning and sings a song together. In which players, when a ball is out of play, toss it into the stands. In which mascots shoot T-shirt out of cannons. In which there is a public address announcer. (The Orioles' actual public address announcer, Ryan Wagner, went through an existential crisis on Twitter yesterday trying to figure out his place in this strange new world. To whom does such a man address when there is no public?) In which a man hits a home run and then steps out of the dugout to tip his hat to the applauding hordes. In which the ambient sound features vendors barking out their products to anyone within earshot. In which tens of thousands of people stand up and sit down in cascading unison to provide the illusion of mass movement. In which sometimes men and women dress up like assortments of meat and run around in a circle. In which there is a Kiss Cam.
If no one is watching, why do anything? So much of this is for show. Do managers still argue with umpires? Do pitchers hide their faces under their caps when they're excited so as to not show up the opposition? (Show them up to whom?) Does it really matter how much time you take between pitches if no one is there? Could there be a beanbrawl? One imagines both bullpens emptying until, halfway there, they experience a Zen profundity caused by the silence that surrounds them and then turn around and go back.
How do you go on? What kind of show would David Letterman do if, one night, they just unplugged the cameras? Would he actually continue? How could he? It would be ludicrous.
Now, I understand that this game will be broadcast locally and on MLB.tv for the world to watch: This is not an actual tree falling in a forest with no one to witness. But it will feel that way for the players. How could it not? No matter what level of baseball any of these men have ever played, there have always been people watching them live. There are people watching them practice. It will feel as unnatural to them as walking to the plate without a bat.
We have a Major League Baseball game, in one of the most gorgeous ballparks on the planet, played to nothing but empty seats. It scrambles the brain and rattles the soul. It is like nothing we have ever seen and, hopefully, will ever see again.
What is happening in Baltimore Wednesday, both inside the stadium and outside of it, is something that we will be talking about for decades. We might never wrap our minds around any of it. This is what history looks like. This is what we never forget. I hope none of it ever happens again. But we cannot look away.