According to an April 3, 2017, New York Times article, Rafael Espinal, a member of the New York City Council, is considering proposing legislation that would require the Yankees and Mets to extend their existing protective netting 90 feet from home plate (MLB currently recommends that netting extend 70 feet from home plate). Such a move would protect fans seated behind the dugouts at both stadiums. “I’m baffled by why this is such a big issue,” he is quoted as saying. “You have the money to put up the netting. You would avoid the headaches of having to deal with injured fans. Your players would feel less guilty when they go up to bat.” Should this legislation be introduced and passed, it would be a significant step toward improving fan safety. It also might encourage governmental bodies in other MLB cities to take similar action to protect their citizens from needless injury.
In the debate over whether or not to extend protective netting, those who oppose any additional nets love to cite figures in an attempt to show that the likelihood of being injured by a foul ball or bat is statistically small in comparison to the number attending MLB and MiLB games every season. What is often lost in this argument is that real people are suffering real injuries, many of them life-altering. It’s easy to ignore a problem that has no face, that is depersonalized by citing a bunch of numbers. The bottom line is that no one should suffer an injury from a ball or bat, especially since the solution is so simple.
What follows is the story of one such tragedy. It is a tale I hear all too often. And it is one that never should have happened.
On August 6, 2016, my husband’s life changed forever…at a baseball game. An event we never imagined could happen and took an instant to transpire had a life-altering effect on his wellbeing.
We were in attendance at a much anticipated Braves vs. Cardinals game at Busch Stadium. The Braves/Cardinals series in St. Louis is an annual pilgrimage we make from Atlanta to watch the game with our friends- rival Cardinals fans. We were seated in section 144, row E at the far right side, the 3rd and 4th seats in. We were watching and paying close attention to the game when in the bottom of the 8th, Tommy Pham of the Cardinals hit a broken-bat foul ball into the stands in our section. I felt something fly by my face and lift my hair and immediately knew what had happened. My husband, Rick, was struck directly in his left eye by a foul ball traveling at great speed. He reacted immediately by placing both hands over his eye. Fans all around us began calling for help from the medics. A gentleman who introduced himself as a surgeon was at our side immediately to assess Rick’s condition. He urged my husband to remove his hands so he could see if there was any projectile imbedded in his eye. As soon as Rick pulled his hands away and I saw the injury, I knew the gravity of the situation. EMT’s responded within seconds it seems and as soon as they determined Rick had not lost consciousness and could walk out of the stadium, they quickly escorted us to a First Aid area located at section 147. There they applied a temporary bandage and got Rick and I to an ambulance immediately. We were taken to Barnes Jewish Hospital where the full extent of his injuries would be determined.
Between 9:00 p.m. on August 6th and 8:30 a.m. on August 7th, multiple examinations and a 4 ½ hour surgery took place. Suffice it to say that the outcome was less than favorable. Rick’s injuries included a ruptured globe, blow-out fracture of the orbital floor, broken zygomatic arch, broken temporal-mandibular joint, and lacerations. In layman’s terms, his eyeball was flattened, bones in the eye socket were fractured, his cheekbone and jaw were broken, and he had deep cuts. He would never see out of that eye again.
In the days following the injury, he has been seen by more doctors than we can remember, including surgeons and specialists, to determine if there was any chance of meaningful vision in the left eye or if it needs to be removed and replaced with a prosthetic eye. Based on the current state of the eye, very low likelihood of any meaningful sight, and the risks involved with surgery, it was decided that Rick will not undergo any further surgeries. He will remain sightless in the left eye.
He wears polycarbonate glasses now full time to protect his right eye. The left eye socket is sunken and the bony abnormalities are apparent now that all the swelling has gone down. He still has his eyeball and will keep it as long as it doesn’t shrink too much and as long as it doesn’t cause him pain. He isn’t in pain now, thank goodness. He has some discomfort and he wants to rub the eye constantly. The eye itself is pretty clouded over, but when he has his glasses on it isn’t very noticeable.
He functions well but there are things that are bothersome…large crowds where he can’t see people approaching from the left, hand-eye coordination for close up work. He is a tinkerer and is working on refinishing a boat and this is challenging.
You know before Rick’s accident I never gave this much thought. Now it’s so obvious. But this is the reason there is no fan outcry for more netting. The public doesn’t know about it. I think if more fans saw the faces of those injured or the actual injuries they might actually think twice about where they sit at the ball park.
An HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll of 1,297 adults released on April 16, 2016, found that a majority (54%) of those surveyed think that MLB should expand protective netting along field level seating. The survey, conducted with the Marist College Center for Sports Communication, reported that “50% of those fans would rather sit behind netting when close to the field, although only 41% of male baseball fans would compared to 61% of women.” The preference for protective netting rises significantly when children are a factor. A whopping 77% would prefer to sit behind netting if they are attending a game with small children. The complete poll results can be found at http://sportscomm.marist.edu/
On November 16, 2016, U. S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed the class action lawsuit over netting and fan safety, citing data supplied by MLB that the risk of injury to fans was less than 1 percent. Rogers did agree that “while rare, the severity of injuries that baseball spectators sustain in the modern era as a result of foul balls is significantly more severe than in the past.” For the complete ruling, see https://dockets.justia.com/docket/california/candce/4:2015cv03229/289365
Although she gave no indication as to when she would rule, it appears likely that the federal judge overseeing the class action lawsuit against California’s major league baseball stadiums over extended safety netting will allow the case to advance, according to a report in the Courthouse News Service (http://www.courthousenews.com/2016/08/24/suit-over-baseball-stadium-safety-nets-picks-up-steam.htm). “One of the things that has always concerned me about this case are the allegations that the pitchers themselves do not allow their children to sit in those sections. Then I see the exhibit from Dodger Stadium and it’s interesting to me how often children are listed as the victims of the injury. Isn’t it time for a jury to decide if something is there?, ” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers stated.
What follows is a list of some of the serious injuries from balls and bats suffered by fans at major and minor league games during the 2016 season. It is by no means a comprehensive list:
A Kansas City Royals fan, sitting along the third base line just beyond the newly extended netting in Kaufman Stadium, was struck in the face by a foul ball on April 3. The ball hit him above his upper lip, causing him to lose consciousness for several moments.
A woman was struck in the eye by a foul ball during an April 15 game at Tropicana Field between the Rays and White Sox. The ball passed through the gap left for television cameras between the original netting and the newly extended netting. The victim was removed by stretcher and taken to an area hospital for treatment. Several days after the incident, the Rays added netting to cover the gap.
A woman was struck in the face while trying to catch a foul ball at an El Paso Chihuahuas game on April 20. She was transported to a local hospital as a precaution.
A 6-year-old boy was severely injured when struck on the head by a foul ball during a Charlotte Knights game the weekend of May 14. Although the Knights had extended the safety netting to the far ends of the dugouts this season, the family was seated in the first row on the third base side just beyond where the new netting ended. The child sustained a skull fracture and a concussion which required hospitalization in an intensive care unit for several days. Said the attending physician, “If you get hit in the head with a baseball going a hundred miles an hour, you can sustain skull fractures; you can sustain internal bleeding in your head that can possibly be fatal.”
A male fan seated five rows back from the third base visitors’ dugout was struck in the face by a piece of broken bat during a game at Fenway Park on May 14. He sustained a two-inch cut above his right eye, but was able to leave the game without assistance.
A 7-year-old boy was struck on the left side of his head by a line drive foul ball at a May 17 game at Petco Park in San Diego. The screaming liner bounced back 20 rows in one section only to ricochet forward 12 rows to where he was seated two sections over down the right field line. Fortunately, the youngster did not sustain severe injuries from the blow.
Even major league ball players are not immune from the dangers of foul balls. Miami Marlins second baseman Derek Dietrich was struck on the back of his head by a foul ball that ricocheted off the dugout wall during the ninth inning of a game in Atlanta on May 29. The blow knocked Dietrich down for several minutes, but he remained conscious. Dietrich remained overnight in Atlanta as a precaution where he was examined and cleared to resume play the following day.
A woman at a June 29 Fisher Cats game in Manchester, NH, was taken to the hospital after she was struck in the head by a foul ball while seated along the first base line.
A woman had to be removed by stretcher after she was struck in the head by a foul ball during the first inning of a game at Cleveland’s Progressive Field on July 26. The fan, seated down the right field line, may have been blinded by the sun and did not see the ball heading her way.
A young woman seated near the third base dugout at Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium suffered a ruptured left eyeball when struck by a foul ball during a Montgomery Biscuits game on August 13. The damaged eyeball was completely removed a couple of weeks later. Local baseball broadcaster Melanie Newman tweeted that “it’s easily the most horrifying thing I have witnessed live. It’s changed a lot of things for my mindset.”
A young girl seated near the third base dugout was struck in the face by a foul ball off the bat of Freddy Galvis during a Phillies game on August 20. Although the Phillies had extended the netting ten feet to the near ends of the dugouts, the child was seated in an unprotected area. Said Galvis after the game, “What year is this? 2016? It’s 2016 and fans keep getting hit by foul balls when you’re supposed to have a net to protect the fans. The fans give you the money, so you should protect them, right? We’re worried about speeding up the game. Why don’t you put up a net and protect all the fans? What if I broke all her teeth. What if I broke her nose. If I hit her in one eye and she loses that. What are they going to do? They’re going to forget in three days. It’s going to be a big deal for two, three days. Everybody in TV, media, whatever. But after three days what’s going to happen? They’re going to forget. But that family won’t forget that. Do you think the little baby will forget that? It’s true life. It’s something you have to put before everything. Safety first. Safety.”
The following day (August 21), a mother at a Phillies game was struck in the mouth by a foul ball while trying to protect her daughter. The ball ricocheted off the top of the third base dugout, striking the woman who was seated in the top rows of the lower level seating. Freddy Galvis, who witnessed the injury, was seen to throw his hands up in frustration.
On August 22, a woman at a Brewers game in Miller Park was struck on the left ear by a line drive foul off the bat of Colorado’s Nick Hundley. The injured fan was removed by stretcher and taken to an area hospital.
A woman was struck in the face by a foul ball that ricocheted off the roof of the visiting team dugout during the fourth inning of a Cleveland Indians game on September 4. The injured fan, holding a bloody towel to her nose, needed assistance to walk to the first aid station.
A woman was seriously injured when a foul ball struck her in the face during the seventh inning of World Series Game 7 in Cleveland on November 2. Knocked unconscious by the blow, she was taken from the stadium on a stretcher with her head and neck immobilized.
Although the second edition of Death at the Ballpark was recently published, my research into game-related fatalities continues. What follows are deaths that I have uncovered since the publication of the book in the fall of 2015. Readers of this blog are encouraged to send me any additional fatalities that are not included in the book or on this list.
John O’Grady, 13, was playing street ball in Chicago, IL, on September 23, 1870, when he was struck on the abdomen by a batted ball, resulting in his death moments later.
Charles Glenn, center fielder for Cedarville College (now Cedarville University) in Ohio, collided with the shortstop as both pursued a fly ball in a game against Wilberforce University in Springfield, OH, on May 12, 1903. Glenn sustained a fatal skull fracture while the shortstop, knocked unconscious by the blow, recovered.
Harry Edward Rickerds, 14, died moments after suffering a heart attack while running from third base to home plate during a game in Frederick, MD, on June 9, 1907.
Frank Phillips, 9, was struck on the mouth by a baseball during a game in Pittsburgh, PA, on June 22, 1908. The blow caused a hemmorhage that physicians were unable to stop. The youngster passed away at a Pittsburgh hospital in mid-July.
Houston Wilson, a pitcher on a town team in Sulphur, OK, was struck on the head by a batted ball during team practice on June 16, 1909 and died a few hours later.
John Chenaut, catcher, died moments after he was struck over the heart by a pitched ball during the eighth inning of a game between African American ball clubs in French Lick, IN, on July 13, 1909.
Walter C. Holiday, acting as gatekeeper during at game in Galatia, IL, against a team from Thompsonville, IL, on September 11, 1910, was shot and killed by Joseph Wiggins while attempting to collect the 15 cent admission charge from the assailant. Wiggins fled the scene of the crime before he could be arrested.
James Purcell, 2, was eating peanuts during a game in New York City in early May 1912 when one of the nuts entered his lungs. He was rushed to an area hospital where physicians tried for a week to remove the pieces from his lungs. The child passed away on May 7.
Finis Townsley was struck on the head by a pitched ball during a game in Jonah, TX, on June 13, 1912. He continued to play, but shortly after the game became ill. He passed away at his home the following morning.
Clarence Stearns died from a brain hemorrhage at his home in Winnebago, MN, on September 20, 1913, as a result of two beanings he received while playing ball that summer. Stearns had played with the St. Paul Colts of the Class C Northern League earlier that season before joining a semipro team in Sheridan, WY.
Walter Hilenski, 13, died moments after he was struck over the heart by a pitched ball during an elementary school game in Salem, MA, on May 23, 1923.
Felipe Carrera, 45, umpiring a game in Victoria, TX, in mid-July 1931, was shot in the stomach by 21-year-old player Ramon De Leon over a disputed call. Shots were also fired at De Leon’s two brothers during the resulting melee. De Leon was arrested and charged with murder when Carrera passed away on July 17.
Jack M. Fiquette, 40, was killed in Cobb County, GA, by a foul ball while watching a game on July 7, 1984. He was standing outside the fence and was struck behind his left ear.
Zacharie Schaubhut, 15, was pitching during a game in Bemidji, MN, on May 24, 2015, when he was struck by a batted ball. The youngster was taken to a local hospital before being airlifted to a hospital in Fargo, ND. He passed away later that same day.
Ten-year-old Lane Rodgers was one among a group of youngsters playing in a 76-team baseball tournament in Tupelo, MS, on June 13, 2015, when heavy storms struck the area. As he and others ran for the safety of a nearby concession stand, a large limb fell and struck him on the back of his head just as he was passing under a tree. One of the parents who was a physician administered CPR until paramedics arrived and took the child to an area hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Kaiser Carlile, 9, bat boy for the Liberal (KS) Bee Jays, an amateur team playing in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, KS, was struck on the head by a bat swung in practice during a game on August 1, 2015. Although the child was wearing a batting helmet, the blow resulted in his death the following day.
Sixty-year-old Gregory Murrey tumbled from the upper deck at Turner Field during the seventh inning of an Atlanta Braves game against the New York Yankees on August 29, 2015. Murray, who fell some 40 feet into the seating area behind home plate, was administered CPR before he was rushed to an area hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
The May/June 2016 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports (pp. 132-133) has the results of a study of fan injuries conducted by doctors Mark R. Zonfrillo, Nicholas G. Janigian, and Bradley A. Maron entitled “Death or Severe Injury at the Ball Game”. Not only did these researchers conduct an internet search of reported fan injuries at MLB games from 2009 to 2014, they also sent surveys to all 30 MLB teams in an attempt to determine which teams tracked fan injuries. Unfortunately, they found what I and others have found, i.e., MLB is resistant to providing exact figures as to the number and nature of injuries to spectators at major league parks. To quote the doctors’ findings, “For the survey, of 30 team representatives contacted, 63% did not return communications despite multiple correspondences. Furthermore, of the 11 contacted successfully, 7 declined to answer survey questions citing legal reasons, team policy, or disinterest, whereas none of the 4 teams that acknowledged official record keeping of fan injuries were willing to disclose any further information.” In other words, the good doctors were stonewalled. What is organized ball hiding? Are fan injuries much more common (and severe) than we realize? If the true extent of the problem were known, perhaps professional baseball would be forced to take greater measures to protect their fans. Unfortunately, MLB and MiLB have been allowed to hide behind the so-called “Baseball Rule” for over a century and until the courts force their hands, teams have no real incentive to protect their customers.
In April HBO Sports with Bryant Gumbel did a program on fan safety at baseball games. One of the more interesting things they looked at was reaction time to a speeding foul ball. With the help of Washington State University, they set up a scenario where male and female volunteers of all ages were seated behind plexiglass while a pitching machine located 75 feet away fired baseballs traveling 95 mph at them. (They determined that the distance was typical of the closest exposed seating at MLB parks and that the speed was typical of how fast a line drive foul travels.) What they found was truly frightening. While some subjects giving their full attention to the ball were able to get out of the way in time, a good many froze and did not duck. Almost all of the subjects would have been struck if their attention was even slightly diverted, such as when eating a hot dog or conversing with the person seated next to them. It’s simply unreasonable to expect the typical fan to pay attention every second there’s action of the field. And even if you do, many of us do not react in time to get out of the way of a screaming line drive. Click this link to see this segment of the show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miiahEyxSTI
Renowned horror novelist and lifelong Red Sox fan Stephen King published an op ed piece in the April 10 edition of the Boston Globe in which he objects to the newly-extended safety netting at Fenway Park. Mr. King, who has season tickets on the second row near the Sox dugout, is really upset that the new netting now protects this area of the ballpark. “I feel terrible about the netting,” he states. “It’s one more step toward taking the taste and texture out of the game I care for above all others. The bottom line? That net feels like paying good money to sit in a cage.”
Now, I admire Stephen King. I’ve read nearly everything he’s published (sorry, I just couldn’t get into the Dark Tower series) and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a writer. But I have to say that his argument against the extended netting is weak at best.
In defense of his position, Mr. King raises two points that one usually hears from opponents of netting. These points may, on the surface, sound reasonable, but in actuality are completely wrongheaded.
First, Mr. King plays the numbers game. While he agrees that some injuries are quite serious, he dismisses this concern by stating that “almost 74 million (emphasis his) fans attended MLB games in 2015, so the chances of being struck by a piece of bat or a foul line drive are pretty slim. Right up there with being struck by lightning, I’d say. Maybe even less, if the fan is paying attention.”
This line of reasoning is totally misleading. First, 74 million tickets were sold in 2015, but far fewer actually attended the games. More importantly, this figure includes the entire ballpark, even those areas where it is highly improbable, if not outright impossible, for a foul ball or errant bat to enter. Areas such as those seats behind home plate which have had protective screening for over a century and seating in the upper decks and outfield where balls rarely, if ever, go and where bats never land. If one wants to get a true picture of the real danger from bats and balls, then look just at the field level seats along the first and third base lines (referred to in the netting industry as “the Danger Zone”), not the entire ballpark. I have season tickets to my local minor league ballpark and I can assure you that fans in these areas are in serious danger of being struck by a ball or bat. During a game at the end of last season, a friend sitting next to me almost had his head taken off by a line drive foul. And, in that same game, two fouls went screaming past us, striking food kiosks along the concourse and a fan across home plate from us was struck on the shoulder by a line drive foul. To make matters worse, a fan seated near first base was nearly struck by a ball when the pitcher overthrew the first baseman in a pickoff attempt. (Fortunately, team ownership recognized the danger to fans and this season full netting has been extended to the far ends of both dugouts.)
In addition, I believe there are far more injuries in those areas than people realize. Almost two years ago, a journalist for Bloomberg.com wrote an article on the dangers from foul balls at major league games. The number he came up with was an average of 1,750 per season, not including injuries from bats or thrown balls or injuries at minor league games.
This figure was derived from a statistical formula and is not the actual number of injures. Why? Because MLB refuses to track fan injuries. All organized ball would have to do to get an exact count is to survey ballpark first aid stations. Even then, I suspect it would be an undercount, because many of those hit by a ball or bat to not seek medical attention, which was the case when I was struck on the forehead by a foul ball about 15 years ago.
The second point Mr. King raises is of the blame-the-victim variety. It is the responsibility of the fan, he asserts, to pay complete attention. If he or she is injured, then it is his or her fault, because anyone can duck a bat or ball if they know it is coming.
Here’s what is misleading about this argument. First, some seats are closer to home plate than is the pitching mound. In those cases, there may not be sufficient time for one to react. Just look at the number of pitchers struck by batted balls each season to get an idea of how little time there is to get out of the way of a screaming line drive. In addition, people react to danger in different ways. Some have quick reaction times and can dodge the ball or bat, others freeze or panic and do not move in a way that protects them.
But the real fallacy with this argument is that, while in an ideal world everyone is paying attention every time there is action on the field, that is not the case in reality. Does Mr. King pay attention every second he’s at a game? He refers to his seating area as a “neighborhood” since he’s had these same seats for years. He knows the folks around him, talks to them, even greets food and drink vendors that regularly come by his seat. Is he being “neighborly” between innings only, or is he sometimes distracted while the game is going on? I suspect the latter. As a season ticket holder, he is obviously an aficionado of the game, as am I. But I have to admit that there are times during the game when my mind wanders or my attention is distracted. For the casual fan, probably the majority of those attending an average game, isn’t it even more likely that he or she is not paying attention to every play on the field? In addition, many venues do everything in their power to distract fans from the game. It’s almost as if the game is secondary and it’s the entertainment in the stands that’s more important. At my ballpark, for example, there is wi fi for those who want to use their smartphones, fans are encouraged to take selfies and send them in to be posted on the large outfield screen at the end of the game, and the team mascot wanders throughout the stands interacting with the spectators. Believe me, much of this activity occurs while the game is in progress. So in these instances, who’s the most responsible for a lack of attention to the game, the fan or the ballpark?
Yes, Mr. King, fans should pay attention. But people are people and it’s simply not realistic to expect them to devote their full attention to the game every moment they are there. This is especially true of children, those most likely to suffer severe injury when struck by a ball or bat. Do you really believe that your irritation with the protective screening trumps fan safety? Really? I say that if the netting protects even one fan from suffering a life-altering injury, even if he or she is paying attention or not, then it is well worth it.
(Note: A modified version of this response appears in the April 18 edition of The Boston Globe)