Growing up in northwest Indiana, I had two choices when it came to baseball fandom: Cubs or Sox.
My entire family was populated by Chicago Cubs fans, primarily because at the time every one of the Cubs’ games was broadcast on WGN’s regional television and radio networks. It was easy to be a Cubs fan – you couldn’t escape coverage of them. I went the other way, cheering for the Chicago White Sox and their cast of colorful, if mostly ignored, characters.
One summer evening while I was sitting along the first base line at old Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox, a foul ball off the bat of an opposing player sliced around the protective netting behind home plate and struck a woman right at her hairline. She was sitting a good 30 rows back, but that ball ripped her scalp and she immediately was a blood-soaked mess. My group and I were sitting a couple of sections toward the outfield from her, but we still could tell that she was seriously injured.
A similar incident earlier this week at the Houston Astros’ Minute Maid Park brought that story back to mind and made me wonder why baseball hasn’t done more to protect fans from foul balls and errant bats flying dangerously into the stands. That Sox game incident happened back in the late 1980s, and since then Major League Baseball teams have extended the protective netting to the outfield end of the dugouts.
On Wednesday, a young girl sitting beyond the far end of the third-base dugout at Minute Maid Park was struck by a foul ball hit by Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. The girl was taken to a local hospital and Houston radio station Sports Talk 790 later reported that the child was awake and responsive. Almora was overcome with emotion as soon as he saw the impact of the ball entering the stands, and after the game advocated for more protective netting to keep fans safe.
Nathaniel Grow, an associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University in Bloomington, told CNN that fan injuries at baseball parks are becoming regular occurrences. A study Grow published last year found that “about 1,750 fans are hurt each year by foul balls at MLB games,” CNN’s Rey Sanchez reported. Grow’s study put that into context: There are about two fans injured by foul balls every three games, which makes it a more common occurrence than a player being hit by a pitch.
In a thorough breakdown of the hows, whys and why nots of MLB’s lack of further action on extending netting and, thus, fan safety, the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal and Tim Bannon wrote that owners and league officials are leery about devaluing expensive seats closest to the action and that owners have been “shielded largely by what’s known in legal circles as the ‘assumption of risk’ doctrine, though many know it simply as the ‘baseball rule.’” That fine print on the back of tickets states that, in essence, the ticket holder assumes and accepts all risks and dangers by voluntarily attending the game. Rosenthal and Bannon wrote that “courts have tended to accept that your safety is your responsibility.”
Other reports have noted that MLB officials fear protective netting will cut down on fans’ ability to interact with players before games, get autographs and snag batting practice balls flipped into the stands. These arguments are hollow: Nets can be designed with openings that are secured when the game starts, and teams can make players available in designated areas before games.
Players are ready to keep the people who pay their salaries safer at the ballpark. White Sox first baseman/designated hitter Yonder Alonso told the Chicago Sun-Times: ‘‘I’m a big believer in nets all around. No. 1 is the safety of … everybody in the baseball stadium. That’s the reason why we have nets (behind) the dugout. Two feet behind us are the fans, and they don’t have a net. That two feet is nothing when a ball is coming 110 miles per hour.’’