08 March 2018

Danger at the Ballpark

As a child, my understanding of ballpark injuries was the scene at the end of Field of Dreams where the young girl chokes on a hot dog.  Baseball still felt like a secure and safe environment where the only harm comes from freakish occurrences.  That changed in Little League when our man-child, Skip, went behind the dugout to get a few extra swings in for hope in launching the ball over the pond and maybe even all the way to the Random House factory beyond.  Another player on the team, Chad, walked behind the dugout for some reason or another.  All I remember is a thud and a tooth skittering under the wall and ricocheting off my cleat.  Still, the danger of actual baseball seemed largely confined to where the players were.

I feel foolish to admit it, but the danger posed in the stands beyond choking on hotdogs was something that really only came to mind in 2006 when Jay Gibbons hit a line drive into the stands where it hit his wife, bruising her ribs.  At the time he said in an article that did not really take the incident seriously:
Long before the matter became personal, Gibbons had asked team
officials to do something about making it safer to sit in the seats
behind the plate. He contended that the 20-foot screen just doesn't
offer enough protection from hard-hit foul balls.
"It's something you think about every day here. Obviously, it's
something I've talked about [to] deaf ears," said Gibbons,
Baltimore's designated hitter and player representative. "I've got
players coming to me every day saying that one of their family
members got hit or almost got hit. I had an usher take one for my
wife the other day."
He ended the interview with the statement, "It's either come to the game and play Russian Roulette with your 3-year-old or stay home".

At that point I realized how unhinged the baseball industry is in protecting their spectators.  The protective special duty rule, the Baseball Rule, was established in 1914 and says that a team is protected from any liability if it offers protection for the area it deems to be most dangerous.  While all other industries have modernized their concepts of consumer liability, baseball has not and many legislatures have protected baseball from any changes in the application of the Baseball Rule.

This year every MLB team will have extended netting to protect fans.  This was initiated by the gruesome foul ball injury on a little girl at Yankee Stadium.  Somehow this injury sustained the attention of the media and sports industry.  This event did something that previous terrible injuries and death of children and adults did not do, make MLB take minimal actions in protecting their fans.  It is stunning it took so long.  Teams encourage families to buy these dangerous seats.  Teams encourage fans to engage in what happens on the scoreboard, with mascots, with attendants, and still expects them to be fully attentive to the game.  This includes the fan taking on blame for instances where it would be impossible for fans to be able to react in time.

This issue was so well known that MLBPA in the last three negotiations has asked for more fan protection.  The owners dismissed this out of hand and, admittedly, the players moved onto their own more self important issues.

What I am saying here is that the issue is that fans, like me, greatly ignore or underestimate the issue, owners largely do not care at all about the issue, and players care enough to note it but do not make it a core issue.  With the increase it screening, we should expect a decrease in incident rate from 1 in 28,751 fans having significant medical intervention performed at stadiums each year (which is likely under reporting because some incidents immediately seek care outside of the stadium grounds or hours to days later) because the baseball rule still does not adequately protect fans from dangers, such as maple bats splintering that are able to pass through the netting gauge size.  MLB is still playing Russian Roulette.  

This leads us to a book that came out last year Danger at the Ballpark.  The book is a sober overview of the issue.  It covers the early history of spectator injuries, the creation and implementation of the Baseball Rule, and goes through several case studies where teams and the league fought hard to retain the rule to prevent any notion of liability.  The book notes how fans have had their lives altered with chronic pain management, loss of eyes, and the loss of the loved one.  It is a hard read.

The book lacks Jay Gibbons' incident and his words, but it collects the words of many professional baseball players from interviews over the years noting how dangerous it is to sit near the field without protection and how fans are not trained to adequately recognize the danger or protect themselves from that danger.

Fan safety at games has been an issue I have been trumpeting since the day Gibbons, but this book really puts together the evidence and intellectual underpinnings of why MLB needs to change.  If you want to hone up on that rationale or challenge yourself if you have a different opinion, this book will do its best to push you to recognize the danger at the ballpark.


Jack Herskowitz
Trimark Press 

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