BALTIMORE (AP) _ Looting, rioting and violence has left Baltimore rattled and in a state of repair. Officials hope a big sports week has a healing effect on the beleaguered city.
Civil unrest remains an issue in Baltimore after two weeks of tension between residents and police. The return of the Orioles for an extended period and the running of the Preakness could help ease matters.
The Orioles expect to play before enthusiastic crowds throughout the week, and track officials say good weather could lead to record attendance numbers at Pimlico Race Course.
“We certainly recognize the role that we play in the community, and hope we would always be seen as a unifying experience,” said Greg Bader, vice president of marketing and communications for the Orioles.
The defending American League East champions begin a nine-game homestand at Camden Yards on Monday. That also marks the start of Preakness Week, the annual buildup at Pimlico to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Baltimore was overrun by violence and destruction April 27 after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died of spinal cord injuries while in the custody of Baltimore police. The Orioles postponed two home games and, in an unprecedented move, played a third without allowing fans to enter. Then they shed three home games against the Rays on May 1-3 to St. Petersburg, Florida.
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but we’re trying to make the best of it,” Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said during a series at Yankee Stadium, the team’s last stop before returning home.
Monday’s game against Toronto will be the Orioles’ first in front of their fans since April 26. Much has changed in Baltimore while they were on the road.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Friday the Justice Department will conduct a broad investigation into the Baltimore police force to identify law enforcement practices that are unconstitutional and violate civil rights.
With all that has happened, and what might still occur, a sense of uncertainty surrounds the city.
“The thing that would worry me a little bit is the Preakness will be the showcase event for Baltimore, so let’s hope (violent protesters) don’t use that as an avenue to further their causes _ whatever they may be,” Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, a Baltimore Police Department spokesman, said he was not aware of any planned demonstrations near Pimlico or at Camden Yards meant to keep Gray’s death in the public eye.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant has a different take on the situation. A leader of the protests that followed Gray’s arrest, Bryant said visitors will likely encounter peaceful demonstrations.
“Don’t be afraid of the protesters, be afraid of the police,” he asserted. “The police have more instances of excessive force against citizens than the protesters do.”
Security is of paramount importance for the Preakness.
“We’re paying attention to it,” said Salvatore Sinatra, general manager of the Maryland Jockey Club. “We’ve talked with our help and the police. We’re going to have the armed services here, Homeland Security. We’re going to make sure our fans are safe. I don’t anticipate any problems.”
Bader said the Orioles have been working with “all necessary state and local officials to ensure a safe and secure environment for all fans.”
Davis believes a night of baseball might go a long way toward restoring a feeling of normalcy in the city.
“I think it’s something that will kind of help remedy what’s been going on there,” the Orioles’ first baseman said. “Being back and giving the fans an opportunity to see us play, and play some good baseball, will hopefully kind of revive their spirits.”
The hope is that everyone’s focus will be on the Orioles and the horses.
“A lot of it has quieted down,” Sinatra said. “We really need to get the Orioles back, playing a series at home, and have the Preakness run.”
Asked if the Orioles’ return would be a feel-good moment for the people of Baltimore, manager Buck Showalter said: “I hope so. I want them to feel what they feel, not what we think they should or shouldn’t.
“Nobody’s been in their shoes. So you just want to be a positive force in people’s lives.”
AP Sports Writer Ron Blum in New York, freelancer Josh Abner in Louisville and AP Writer Dave Dishneau in Baltimore contributed to this story.