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May 6, 2011

Contractual Matters

Screen Test

by Jeff Euston

Royals broadcaster Denny Matthews has seen more than his share of foul balls. Now in his 43rd season, the Hall of Fame play-by-play man with a dry wit regularly employs a succinct description of a ball hit too hard for a fan to try to catch barehanded. “Bad trajectory,” Matthews occasionally observes, in a tone of voice that suggests you couldn’t pay him to make a play on the foul ball.

The speed of the action on the field is lightning quick, and between video boards and smart phones, there never have been so many distractions in the ballpark. As a result, many people in the stands don’t have the time to think or react to approaching foul balls, even if they happen to see them.

Four-year-old Alexis Hoskey never saw the ball coming her way last week as she sat with her family in Section 116, just beyond third base down the left-field line at Kauffman Stadium. (Thanks to the wonders of digital imaging, you can check out a virtual view from the section here.) Kansas City’s Wilson Betemit, batting from the left side of the plate, slashed a foul ball down the third-base line toward the Hoskeys’ seats. The ball struck the girl above the left eye, fracturing her skull, and she was immediately rushed to a local hospital and treated. After a big scare to her family, she is now home and should fully recover, though she is sporting a world-class black eye. Doctors will closely monitor her for the next several weeks.

The incident was the second serious injury to a fan already this season at Kauffman Stadium. On Opening Day, the barrel of Torii Hunter’s shattered maple bat helicoptered into the seats, striking Sue Cooney and fracturing multiple bones in her face. Cooney, 64, was seated in the third row behind the Angels’ dugout along the third-base line.

In response, the Royals have stepped up their awareness campaign designed to educate fans about the danger of balls and bats leaving the field of play. The club is increasing the number of announcements from the stadium public address system and video board reminding fans to pay attention to the action on the field and be prepared in the event that a ball or bat heads in their direction. Additionally, if fans do not feel safe where their seats are located, they may ask to be re-seated in a safer location elsewhere in the ballpark.

As is the case in most ballparks, protective screens at Kauffman Stadium run behind home plate from dugout to dugout. Fans behind the dugouts and down the foul lines remain exposed to bats or balls that reach the seats. Whether they realize it or not, fans assume the risk of being hit, and it says so on the back of each game ticket. The disclaimer absolves Major League Baseball of liability, with the relevant language reading, “WARNING The holder assumes all risk and danger incidental to the sport of baseball and warm-ups, practices and competitions associated with baseball, including (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by thrown bats, fragments thereof, and thrown or batted balls, and agrees that none of the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, Major League Baseball Enterprises, Major League Baseball Properties, Inc., Baseball Television Inc., the American and National Leagues of Professional Baseball Clubs, the Major League Clubs, and their respective agents, players, officers, employees and owners shall be liable for injuries or loss of personal property resulting from said causes.”

Along with a line of court rulings, the “assumption of risk” disclaimer protects clubs from most negligence lawsuits arising from injuries at the ballpark. Under a legal doctrine known as “the baseball rule,” courts have held that clubs or stadium owners owe fans a limited duty of providing screened seats for only as many people as might reasonably be expected to want them.

Almost remarkably, it has been 41 years since a foul ball off the bat of outfielder Manny Mota at Dodger Stadium struck and killed a 14-year-old boy, the lone fatality from a batted ball during a Major League game. But less than a year ago, 39-year-old Wendy Whitehead died after being hit by a foul ball at a June independent league game in San Angelo, Texas. She had been seated just beyond the dugout on the third-base line. The protective screen at the San Angelo ballpark extended farther than those at most Major League stadiums, reaching all the way to the end of both dugouts. Unfortunately, Whitehead was seated just beyond the screen.

Nine years ago, a fatal tragedy struck another spectator sport. The 2002 death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil—hit by a deflected puck during a National Hockey League game in Columbus, Ohio—prompted the league to require its teams to install protective nylon netting in the corners and behind the goals of each NHL arena.

Japan’s Central and Pacific Leagues have long taken a pro-active approach, utilizing protective screens that run the length of the foul lines. (An extended screen is visible in this photo from the 2008 Red Sox-Athletics series in Japan.) MLB clubs have not followed suit primarily because some fans have suggested that they don’t want obstructed-view seats.

But that explanation rings hollow. NHL fans did not stop buying tickets because of the new screens, and MLB’s clubs have acted to enhance safety before. When Don Zimmer was struck by a foul ball while sitting in the dugout during a 1999 American League Division Series game, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner unilaterally ordered that a protective screen be installed in front of the Yankee Stadium dugouts. The decision made the Yanks the first team to take such a step. The other owners followed Steinbrenner’s lead, and dugout screens are commonplace today.

There is no screen or rule that will protect every fan, but the horror stories of Alexis Hoskey and Sue Cooney provide a good example of an area where a league-wide policy—in this case, for fan security—would benefit the game. A simple directive from the Commissioner requiring clubs to extend the protective screens down the foul lines would go a long way toward reducing injuries. The cost per club wouldn’t run much more than a Major League minimum salary. If the NHL can revamp its policy for the sake of its paying customers, the $7 billion industry that is Major League Baseball should be able do it, too. That approach would certainly be more effective than waiting until more tragedies unfold; unless the status quo changes, it’s probably just a matter of time before we see another fatality. Baseball’s owners have the power to change the trajectory on the issue of fan safety, and there is no reason why it should take a death to make it happen.

Jeff Euston is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

Related Content:  Fans,  Foul Balls

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