Austin Hays knows too well what an empty ballpark feels like. He played through the COVID-19 pandemic and then through forgettable seasons — for a while, Camden Yards “was kind of a ghost town.”

As the Orioles have improved, so has the audience, and Hays has been glad to see Camden Yards fill in. From his journey through Aberdeen, Frederick, Bowie, Norfolk and now to Baltimore, the Florida native has come to feel strong bonds to the region, especially the people in the stands.

“Just seeing it come back and seeing all those hardworking people excited to spend their time at a baseball game has been great,“ Hays said. ”It’s a big identity of this city. There’s a lot of tough people that live here.”

But again on Tuesday it was eerily quiet at the ballpark. And the Orioles who woke up to the news of the catastrophic Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse had an idea that their public workout and fan rally would not go off as planned.

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So the team worked out in the cool evening, with only the cracks of their bats punctuating the music on the field. They understood how a city hobbled by a disaster would not be ready to celebrate baseball quite so soon.

“That takes priority over what we have going on,” Cedric Mullins said.

But opening day, whether it is Thursday or pushed back a bit by rain, will be a welcome rite to Baltimoreans and Marylanders this spring more than most.

We are staring down tragedy and, given the significance of the city’s port and now demolished thoroughfare, we are looking at tough times ahead. Camden Yards is not the only place we go in Baltimore to feel unified and proud, but it sure as hell is one of the first places that leaps to mind.

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It is naive to call what sports gives us in these times “healing.” Baseball can’t bring back six lost lives. It can’t rebuild a bridge that cost millions to construct and framed the city skyline for 47 years. It can’t help the thousands of people whose livelihoods hinge on the cargo ships that now sit stalled on both sides of the wreckage.

And yet we are drawn to the field, the court or the ice at these fraught times. It’s hard to forget the Saints’ first game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, or how much the Golden Knights meant to Las Vegas after the Mandalay Bay mass shooting. These are rallying points where our differences are temporarily smoothed by the city on our jerseys — not strictly a solution but still something we need.

Hays was 6 during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, not old enough to understand what was happening but old enough to feel fear and worry when his parents picked him up from school. It was disruptive and scary, a feeling that the world was changing in a way he couldn’t grasp.

New York, and the entire country, was still in grief when the Yankees and the Mets took the diamond for games less than two weeks later, but it felt comforting and familiar — implying that, one way or another, we would find our way back to life’s rhythms.

“It seemed like baseball was the first sport to step back into it and push forward through what’s going on,” Hays told me. “It told everyone, ‘We’re not gonna live in fear. Life is gonna go on.’”

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Life will go on in Baltimore, although we are still figuring out what that looks like. It’s clear the collapse will be a massive disruption to the infrastructure and economy of the region, to add to the cost of human life. Dreams of revitalizing downtown and the Inner Harbor may soon take a backseat to the drudging work it will take for the city’s port to get back online.

Orioles players were among the gobsmacked locals who struggled to take in the news and what it means. The six people presumed dead in the collapse have been described as Dundalk and Highlandtown residents who immigrated from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. That detail struck Venezuela native Anthony Santander hard.

“A lot of times our families and us Latin people have to come over from other countries to find opportunities and better ways to live,” Santander said through team translator Brandon Quinones. “To hear that news, that some of those people who lost their lives today were Latin Americans, it really is devastating.”

For the more tenured Orioles, Baltimore has gotten in their blood. Mullins, an Atlanta-area native, said the city “really took me in,” and he’s admired the ambitions for redevelopment and revitalization of this blue-collar town. He sees a way to pay Baltimore’s hospitality back when the O’s take the field this weekend.

“With this opening day, with the timing of the bridge, the chaos that comes with that,” Mullins told me, “it’s gonna be important for people to know we still have the city’s back regardless.”

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We’ll be living with a pile of twisted concrete and steel in the Patapsco River for a while yet, and all the heartache and headaches that come with it. But we will also have the freshly cut outfield grass and the dazzling white-and-orange uniforms when we get to Camden Yards for a few hours at a time.

Baltimore itself was under siege in 1814 when Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the reason the bridge took his name. With that in mind this weekend, we’ll belt the “O” with spirit — because that’s what Marylanders do. The sense of unity we feel at the ballpark is something we’ll need in droves in the coming weeks, months and years.

The Orioles know this city needs something to bring it together. Baseball helps them regroup, too.

In his toughest moments, Mullins uses baseball’s lessons for life. The best hitters in the game fail more than half the time — the trick is never to surrender.

“It’s kind of, however many times you get knocked down, you keep getting back up,” he said. “There’s always still a chance.”

For as many times as Baltimore has gotten down, we’re still swinging. It’s all we know.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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