“Be Alert for Foul Balls!”

19 September 2012

Sunday, September 16, Cubs versus Pirates at Wrigley Field, bottom of the 7th inning. Chris Leroux pitching, Luis Valbuena at the plate. On a 2-1 count, Valbuena hit a screaming foul ball down the right field line and into the stands just beyond the visiting team’s dugout. WGN briefly showed a woman sitting in her seat, shocked, surprised, quite still, surrounded by people all looking her way with concerned looks on their faces. Then the television cut away, and Len Kasper made the usual-yet-earnest comment about “we hope that fan is all right.”

Umpire crew chief Joe West, stationed at first base, called “time”—and for a few minutes Kasper, Bob Brenly, and “guest conductor” Lee Smith vamped about the wisdom of suspending play momentarily while the fan could be checked out, and more importantly while everyone around her was distracted by the activity. It is a smart decision, and no surprise it came from West, whose 34-year tenure makes him the most veteran of active umpires in the majors. After all, no one wants to be the umpire that called “play ball” only to have another fan get hit by a ball because they were watching the stadium crew help someone else. Meanwhile WGN, like most sports broadcasters, took the courteous and privacy-respecting route and did not show the (possibly injured) fan again.

Of course there is no mention of the incident in any coverage of the game, no way of finding out what happened or if she’s all right.

There’s nothing unusual about any of this, but what set me to thinking about it was a moment an inning or two earlier. As a left-handed batter approached the batter’s box the television showed, in the background, a family in the front couple of rows just to the home-plate side of the visitors’ dugout. Mere feet from the short brick wall—and beyond the protection of the backstop safety netting—were two little kids. Each about three years old, goofing around, having a blast at the ballpark, their elders amused by their antics, just a little scene of pure, “take me out to the ball game” joy.

And yet—both of those children had their backs to the field. They had not the slightest clue of what was happening there. If the foul ball blast that hit the woman an inning or two later would have gone toward one of those kids, no one would have been close enough or have had time enough to react. That ball at that velocity hits a kid in the back of the head, that kid is dead. Period.

It raises a question that has been raised by many before me: how prevalent are spectator injuries in baseball? Among the big-league sports I suspect that baseball and hockey are the two most dangerous with respect to spectator safety, and I’ll wager that baseball is more dangerous than hockey due to my anecdotal impression that more balls than pucks leave the field of play.

How dangerous? Hard to say. Major League Baseball has never undertaken a study of this—or at least never made one public—and for good reason. For MLB to pay close attention to the phenomenon it might give the impression that the league thinks there’s something of an epidemic, and that could cast a harsh light upon MLB’s “assumption of risk” defense.

Warning sign at Wrigley Field. I am not a fan of these signs; in my opinion the levity of the image undermines the seriousness of the warning. Photo by wallyg.You see, MLB ballclubs (and minor-league and independent ballclubs too) engage in what’s generally considered to be a reasonable level of spectator safe-keeping: backstop netting; plexiglas shields atop low, close-in walls; signs and public address messages warning about the risk of foul balls, etc. But beyond that the assumption of risk all lies upon the fans. It’s even printed on the back of every ticket, in boldface albeit extraordinarily tiny letters: “Holder assumes all risk incidental to the game of baseball… including (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by or in connection with any broken or released bat or any thrown or batted ball. Holder agrees [ballclub, et al.] are not liable for any resulting injuries.” In other words you enter the ballpark at your own risk, and your use of this ticket constitutes agreement to those terms.

Personally, I think that’s fair. I know the risk, yet consider the entertainment value of attending a live game to be worth that risk. On those (rare) occasions I get seats close to the field, I am acutely aware of the danger and make sure to maintain a high level of attention to the game. If I wanted to go to the game more for the social aspects, to hobnob with friends and shoot the breeze and enjoy Wrigley’s vaunted “huge beer garden” atmosphere, I’d prefer seats much farther from the action so I don’t have to worry about high-velocity foul balls (and broken bats, another issue altogether).

But back to the question: How dangerous? Well, one frequently cited study—which everyone cites but I cannot find online—“gives the incidence of injuries to MLB fans from foul balls as 35.1 injuries per every million spectator visits.” One site that mentions it equates this to 350 injuries in one season for a ballpark with 10 million total visitors, but I think this figure is—aside from dumbfoundingly obvious math—as disingenuous and obfuscating as the original. No ballpark, not even Yankee Stadium, comes close to even half of that 10-million total.

How about this, instead: at Wrigley Field, with a typical near-sold-out attendance on the order of 40,000 fans, there would be an average of 1.4 injuries PER GAME.

In other words, every game that’s played at Wrigley results in an injury to a fan. On average, that is; and assuming that study is accurate.

But who knows? Because MLB isn’t saying, and the broadcasters are keeping mum, purportedly out of politeness to the injured. (A cynic might point out that the broadcasters undoubtedly want to play nice with their teams with which they have such lucrative contracts, and I would not be surprised if there was some kind of gentleman’s agreement there, however tacit, like the good old days when newspapers refrained from printing photographs of FDR in his wheelchair.)

Which is not to accuse anyone of some sort of evil collusion. Like I said, in my opinion the ballclubs are doing what’s appropriate with regard to fan safety, and it’s encumbent upon us as fans to take some personal responsibility for our own well-being.

That said, I would most definitely subscribe to a weekly newsletter that published a run-down of all the fan injuries in Major League Baseball. Something simple, not too detailed or privacy-invading… “Sunday, 9/16, Pirates v. Cubs at Wrigley Field, bottom 7th, Luis Valbuena batting; woman struck in arm, refused treatment.” Or (and this is for real), “Friday, 7/6, Reds v. Padres at Petco Park, bottom 2nd, Will Venable batting; man struck in shoulder WHILE UPDATING FACEBOOK STATUS, nothing broken.” (That guy’s lucky not to be in the hospital or worse, and he knows it.) Heck, even just a stats line would be interesting: “This week: 95 games played, 3028 foul balls, 6 minor injuries, 1 injury requiring treatment, 0 deaths.”

This is not something meant to call out MLB for a possible epidemic it’s ignoring—serious injuries are, it seems, relatively uncommon, and deaths are exceedingly rare. Instead it would be meant to raise public awareness of the need for alertness while at the ballpark. Best of all, maybe it would save us all from the day when we find ourselves watching and enjoying a game, only to see some family’s day turn instantly from joy to tragedy as their little towheaded lad’s skull is crushed by a ball that would otherwise, under better and more attentive circumstances, be merely a “line drive out of play,” and a game-day souvenir.

 

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