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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

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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prs130

I hate looking through nets. There are some paying customers who prefer to assume the risk.

There's no need for top-down regulation. Decisions like this can be made stadium-by-stadium, seat-by-seat, customer-by-customer. If you want perfect safety, sit in the outfield. Or better yet, stay at home, clutching your fire extinguisher. As for myself, I'll take an unobstructed view and a one in a million* chance of getting struck by something.

*significant overestimation

May 06, 2011 06:47 AM
rating: 3
 
varmintito

Bag screening at MLB parks is massively expensive, slows entry, and is intrusive. It is a response to a generic and speculative fear of terrorism at the ballpark. To my knowledge, there has never been a terrorist/homicidal incident at a ballpark, in any sport, at any level, in this country (I do not count the ubiquitous fights between fans, some of which result in death, but refer only to incidents where somebody comes to the ballpark armed, with the intention of killing other fans).

If MLB can institute and enforce a bag check policy, it can institute and enforce a policy that would cheaply, and without intrusion, protect fans from a known and routine risk. Unlike the purely speculative terrorist/shooting rampage scenario, it is commonplace to see fans injured by batted balls, and flying bats/bat shards.

At a spring training game two years ago, I had a seat just within the screen, which did not wrap around very far. A foul tip deflected just enough to miss the catcher's glove and smacked a guy about three seats away from me, just outside the protection of the screen. He was on the ground for several minutes, treated by EMTs. Eventually, he was escorted out of the grandstand, with a dazed and frightened expression on his face, holding an ice pack against his head.

Usually the injuries aren't disabling, but serious injuries remain a recurring problem. I cringe when I see a line drive into the seats above the dugout. It is random chance that separates the guy at that spring training game from Bryce Flory.

It is a hallmark of human irrationality that we overemphasize intent when assessing our response to risk. The fact that the batter doesn't WANT a sreaming foul ball, a slipped bat, or a shattered bat shard to injure a fan out of ill will does not change the risk that this will happen. Extending the screens is a wise and overdue policy.

May 06, 2011 07:16 AM
rating: 2
 
Brian24

I draw a different conclusion from your first paragraph: get rid of the stupid bag-screening policy!

May 07, 2011 15:46 PM
rating: 3
 
Dave Scott

I always fear for the folks who turn their backs to the plate and chat with a neighbor, ignoring the game -- very dangerous. As for me, I once felt like prs130, but I've seen too many folks hurt and would be OK with the screen being extended. The odds of being hurt are considerably less than 1/1,000,000. And my greatest fear is some yahoo jumping over my back and pushing me to the ground to grab a $5 ball. By the way, I have two balls caught at MLB games and I didn't have to push anyone aside to get them.

May 06, 2011 07:23 AM
rating: 0
 
ttt

I always felt the smaller nets at Citi Field were odd, as Shea had much bigger nets. I don't see the big deal with the nets - extend them.

May 06, 2011 08:08 AM
rating: 0
 
terryspen

I sit directly behind home plate at Marlins games and I never notice the screen. If we go to a game and are sitting in the lower deck beyond the screen, I bring my glove because I'm responsible for my wife and kid. The risk is small and acceptable but woulda, shoulda, coulda ain't going to cut it after the fact. It's the same reason I wear seatbelts even though I haven't had an accident in 25 years.

May 06, 2011 08:09 AM
rating: 0
 
kcshankd

A screen would also help protect the players from drunken idiots. Wrap it all the way around to the foul poles.

May 06, 2011 08:40 AM
rating: 0
 
jhardman

Extend the nets. I was an NHL season ticket holder (Hurricanes) during the time when the girl in Columbus was killed, and remember well when the nets went up. After about 15 minutes, the whole thing became a non issue.

A great boss I once had took me to a game in Tiger Stadium in the late 1990's, my only time in the great old stadium. He got us seats sitting in the first row right where the left field foul line stopped - the "jut out" of the stands. It was field level, and I felt like I was playing deep third base just into foul territory. It was fantastic, but scared me for others who might not be able to focus totally on the game. My boss and I never made eye contact the whole game, and Phil Nevin fell into my lap to catch the pop fly that was straight to me but instead was a Tigers out. I was not Bartman, and the experience to me is priceless.

Still, put up the nets.

May 06, 2011 08:40 AM
rating: 0
 
johnmeister

Comparing an NHL game to an MLB game is laughable. You are much much closer to the action in the NHL. And there is much much more contact with the screens in the NHL. Pucks and players routinely hit the screen. Way more than line drive foulballs in MLB game.

As for baseball, putting screens up also impedes the players' ability to catch flyballs by leaning into the seats. Do we want that?

As for Steinbrenner putting up a screen in the Yankee dugout, players now stand at the top of the step to watch the game maybe so as not look thru the screen.

Are we measuring the risk properly? With countless foul balls in all of these years, we have one death in 41 years? The other fatality was WITH the extended screen in a minor league game. The screen did NOT prevent fatality. So why not go with asking people to be aware and not plan for a 1 fatality in 41 years event?

Or since screens don't work (as seen the minor league game). Ask kids to wear hard helmets at the game in "dangerous" sections? But let's not exaggerate the threat here. Many, many, many kids have gone to the ball park and enjoyed the game without being hurt already.

May 06, 2011 10:24 AM
rating: 3
 
Llarry

The NHL comparison concerns the netting up high at the ends. To the best of my knowledge, no player has ever hit the netting, and only at most a small handful of pucks ever hit it (fewer than foul balls/game) and most of those are at a high angle and wouldn't reach the seats directly. We're not talking about the (plexi)glass around the rink. That's been there a long time and isn't going anywhere, though there is periodic discussion concerning the height and shape of it (and the structure, as it may affect player injuries).

Still, I agree, we're never going to achieve 100% fan safety (unless we eliminate 100% of the fans...), and we need to avoid knee-jerk overreaction -- a pound of prevention for an ounce of cure. Simple (and affordable) first step would be to analyze the actual threat. Detail someone in each park to track every ball or bat that leaves the playing surface, fair or foul (I've seen line drive HRs that could hurt...) with some estimate of arc and speed and see where the dangerous plays really are. (Ideally I'd track until I had a minimum number of events for each combination of pitcher/hitter handedness). Also track players going into the stands at the same time, and see what kind of affect on play might result.

May 06, 2011 16:00 PM
rating: 0
 
goiter6

About a decade ago I was at Twins a game and in the second inning someone hit a foul ball just off the screen. It drills an adult male in his arm and clearly breaks it. It's off at this funny angle when the EMT leads him out. About two innings later, an usher leads a blind guy down and sits him in the exact same seat.

For some reason I doubt teams are going to pony up for netting for fan safety.

May 06, 2011 11:36 AM
rating: 0
 
kmitchell

I think screens should be extended to at least rule out the vast majority of bats and pieces of them that can find their way into the stands. Hotly hit balls are one thing but I don't know what you do with a bat coming your way.

May 07, 2011 06:07 AM
rating: 0
 
mdupske

Duck.

May 08, 2011 20:05 PM
rating: 0
 
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