Is it time to give baseball fans greater protection? – Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
On the front of every ticket to every major- and minor-league baseball game, fans will find their section, row and seat number.
On the back of every ticket is printed something that may be far more important:
A warning about the risks and dangers fans should expect to encounter if they happen to be sitting in a section that is not shielded by protective netting. The words may be in classified-ad size typeface, but theyâre significant.
Balls and bats could enter the spectator area during the game and cause injury.
On May 20, a young boy sitting in the lower-level seats down the left field line at Frontier Field at a Rochester Red Wings game was struck in the face by a line-drive foul ball. He suffered a broken nose.
On July 1, a bat flew out of the hands of Indianapolis Indians infielder Alen Hanson and sailed into the stands behind the first base dugout at Frontier Field, striking a woman and her daughter. They were treated at a local hospital but returned to the ballpark to see the end of the game.
On July 16, also at Frontier, Lehigh Valley catcher Gabriel Lino struck out and, in his follow-through, lost his grip on the bat. It helicoptered into the stands above the third base dugout but didnât cause injury.
The fans were lucky. On June 5 at Fenway Park, Tonya Carpenter was struck by a portion of the broken bat swung by Oakland Aâs infielder Brett Lawrie. She suffered a life-threatening head injury. Various reports say she is now home, recovering and undergoing rehabilitation.
There is an assumed risk when you go to the ballpark. A batted or thrown ball, or an airborne bat, may hit you. Thatâs pretty much how itâs been for 100 years.
Two law firms, working on behalf of a longtime Oakland Aâs fan, think itâs time that baseball protect a greater percentage of fans.
Hagens Berman has partnered with Hilliard Munoz Gonzales LLP in filing a class action suit against Major League Baseball on behalf of Gail Payne. She has been an Oakland Aâs fan since 1968 and is concerned about her own safety and that of other fans.
âYou look at how fast the ball travels and fans really have no chance to respond if a screaming foul ball comes their way,â said Anthea Grivas, a Seattle-based attorney with Hagens Berman.
The suit is not seeking monetary damages. Instead, it asks Major League Baseball to extend the protective netting that is now only behind home plate to each foul pole. Should MLB do so, then presumably all of affiliated minor league baseball would follow suit.
âIf they ever put a net up, Iâm gone,â said Terry Ruff of Rochester, whose Red Wings season-ticket seat is directly behind the third-base dugout at Frontier Field.
Teams believe that would be a common refrain, that fans would stop coming because the view from behind a net isnât appealing.
âHe doesnât speak for everyone,â International League president Randy Mobley said, âbut he certainly speaks for a lot of them.â
Ruff said he has been sitting close to the diamond since 1985 âwhen I started going to games at Silver Stadium.â
Even he had a close call. He said in April, a check swing by Red Wings outfielder Danny Ortiz sent a ball darting his way. âIt just grazed my shoulder,â Ruff said.
The reality is, a fan has very little time to react. For a fan sitting 120 feet from the plate and at about the same plane, a line drive coming off the bat at 95 mph will reach the seat in 9/10ths of a second, according to Steven Manly, a physics professor at the University of Rochester.
âYou have a second, at best, to react,â Manly said.
Thatâs why the class-action suit against MLB seeks change, not money. Itâs a lot like traffic law. Seat belt use is compulsory in nearly every state, even though some drivers believe it should be a personal choice. Lawmakers disagreed, believing safety trumped all.
The lawyers for Gail Payne, the Oakland Aâs fan, say fans at ball games and similar venues must be protected.
âThe reality is, maybe itâs time for that,â said Robert Brenna Jr., founding partner at the Rochester law firm of Brenna Boyce. An area of practice for the firm is personal injury liability.
The warning on the ticket stub has been present for decades but fans may actually be paying less attention to every pitch and every swing than they did 30 years ago. Take a random look at any filled section at any stadium, and in that given moment there might be 15 people looking at their smart phone; texting, tweeting or taking selfies.
Baseball even gives the fans reasons to not be watching the action on the field.
âTheyâre looking at vendors, theyâre looking at the scoreboard, theyâre on the MLB app looking at whatâs going on in other games that night,â Grivas said.
âAnd even if they are paying attention and looking right at the play, basic physics says you donât have time to react with the force and speed at which those balls travel.â
The bats travel briskly as well; that hasnât changed. It was 60 years ago that Diane Aser, now of Brighton, was hit by the barrel end of a broken bat as she sat behind the third base dugout at Red Wing Stadium.
Just like today, there was no protective netting. Just like most fans, then and now, Aser thought little of the risk. She loved to go to the ballpark, to sit close the field, to dream. She attended her first Red Wings game when she was 13.
âMy first love,â she said of baseball and the crush that teenage girls have on ballplayers.
The crush ended abruptly on Aug. 1, 1955, when she was 19.
Aser was sitting in the second row behind the third base dugout and Allie Clark was batting.
As he connected, his bat broke. The ball went toward the outfield; the barrel portion of his broken bat toward Aserâs head. She had no time to duck.
The jagged edge of the bat tore open her cheek. The barrel struck her forehead just above the eye. She was knocked unconscious.
âIt even made The Sporting News because it was considered a freak accident,â she said.
She was lucky, though. While her injuries kept her out of work for about six weeks, they were not debilitating. The one lasting effect: her left eye doesnât open wide.
âMy eye was swollen shut and it never fully opened again,â she said.
An avid fan no longer cared to attend the ballpark, not for more than 30 years.
But after her husband, Gilbert, passed away in 1987, she joined a widow support group. Another member was a baseball fan. Aser decided it might be fun to go to ballgames again.
Now she has Red Wings season tickets and sits with a group of avid fans in the top row of the lower level behind the third base dugout.
âHere I am, back again,â she said.
And tempting fate, some would say. âLast year I got hit by two balls,â Aser said. âOne hit me in the shoulder, one in the thigh.
âAfter all these years, Iâm still leery.â
Yet sheâs still sitting in the unprotected seating area.
âI never liked to sit behind the net,â Aser said. âI just never liked it.â
Bloomberg Business used a statistics model to determine that there are approximately 1,750 injuries at MLB games every year. Fans have probably been lucky, too. Only one death from injuries caused by a batted ball or flying bat is believed to have occurred in at least 55 years at an MLB stadium. In 1970 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, a 12-year-old boy died after he was struck by foul ball.
But in 2010 at an independent league game in San Angelo, Texas, a 39-year-old woman was killed when she was hit by a foul ball. Ironically, protective netting at the ballpark in San Angelo extended at least to the dugouts but she was sitting outside the protected area.
âIf people donât appreciate the risks, you canât assume the risks,â said Grivas, the lawyer with Hagens Berman.
At Frontier Field, first-aid personnel treat, on average, 20 patrons per baseball season, be it for incidents involving bats and balls or just illness, Red Wings general manager Dan Mason said. He said ushers and team personnel are proactive in making sure fans are aware of the potential risks.
âFan safety is something at the utmost of our concerns,â Mason said.
Does an extension of the safety netting make sense? âI wouldnât be opposed,â Mason said. âBut some fans would rather not sit behind nets.â
One of those fans is Ron Vetter, 66, of Dunkirk, Chautauqua County. He attends 70-80 games a year, from New York-Penn League up to Major League Baseball, from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Toronto.
When choosing seat location at the ticket window, he usually asks for something along the baseline. He brings his camera to games and says pictures just donât look the same if shot through protective netting.
âThe way I look at it: all of it is space and itâs just one little baseball,â Vetter said during a recent visit to Frontier Field. âWhat are the chances?â
He shares what seems to be the general belief. Mason said that if there ever would be installation of additional safety netting, it would be done unilaterally at all levels.
Thatâs what happened in hockey after a 13-year-old girl, Brittanie Cecil, died from injuries suffered when she was struck by a deflected shot at a Columbus Blue Jackets game on March 13, 2002. The NHL mandated the installation of protective netting above the Plexiglas at each end of all rinks. The American Hockey League did the same.
At the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, that netting extends up 20 feet from the top of the end Plexiglas. Including the boards, glass and netting, thereâs a 35-foot barrier at each end.
âHockey is a great example of reacting swiftly and reacting properly,â Grivas said. âPeople still appreciate the game and enjoy the game but they feel more confident that theyâll be safe in those seats.â
Perhaps the most compelling argument for an extension of the protective netting at a baseball stadium can be made simply by looking at ballparks.
The dugouts where players and coaches sit are shielded by fencing or netting. Those dugouts house professional baseball players, whose job requires that they be attentive and attuned to all action in a game.
Yet fans who sit directly above the dugout â a mere four or five feet farther away â have nothing but air in front of them. The same is true for fans who may be sitting to the home plate side of the dugouts at Frontier Field, and those seats are closer to the plate than the benches in the dugout.
So why would players and coaches need protection if the fans do not?
âI think thatâs a question for Major League Baseball,â Grivas said. âI donât think itâs any less important to protect the fans who support the game and sustain the game.â
Players donât understand, either.
The Major League Baseball Playersâ Association has brought up safety netting in previous collective bargaining sessions. Theyâre keenly aware of the risks.
âThe players have previously discussed extending the netting,â said Greg Bouris, director of communications for the MLBPA.
In 2007, MLB adopted a rule requiring base coaches to wear helmets during games following the death of Mike Coolbaugh, a first-base coach in the Colorado Rockies organization who died after being struck in the head by a line drive during a Texas League game.
Simply put, players have said that if baseball is concerned about fan safety, then netting should be considered. But there is an argument that most fans are opposed.
âIf there was some type of clamoring from those fans, there probably would be something done,â Mobley, the IL president, said. âIn reality, we have the opposite reaction from them.â
As Brenna points out, alienating some fans and spending money for the installation of netting may not happen until that becomes the cheaper alternative.
âUnfortunately itâs the almighty dollar; nobodyâs going to do anything that costs them money â unless it costs them more money to screw up,â Brenna said.
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