Nov 09, 2010

Into the Stands: How Safe is Pro Baseball?

Photo by Kayla Willey

By Avery Holton

Mike Babcock and the rest of the San Angelo Colts front office were sitting along the right side of Citibank Ballpark in Midland, Texas in late June taking in the Texas League All-Star game when a screaming liner came their way.

Babcock, in his fifth year as San Angelo’s general manager, flinched away as an intern flung his hand up just in time to keep the ball from slamming into the face of another spectator.

“That wouldn’t have normally been my reaction,” said Babcock, whose team plays in an independent league. “But nothing’s been the same.”

Not since Colts rookie infielder John Wagle – fresh out of college – ripped a foul ball into the stands at Foster Field in June, striking a mother of two in her left temple. A month shy of her 40th birthday, Wendy Whitehead – a 1993 graduate of Texas A&M – died from her injuries on June 12.

Whitehead’s death was the first U.S. death resulting from a foul ball at a professional baseball game in four decades.

“It’s a tragedy that shouldn’t have ever happened,” Babcock said. “We do everything we can to warn fans and to keep them safe, but unless the whole field’s enclosed, foul balls are a part of the game.”

Dozens of balls loop and line their way into all of the country’s 200-plus professional baseball stadiums every game causing nearly 4,000 injuries a year by at least one estimate.

A recent report out of Wake Forest University and North Carolina University suggests that 35 injuries occur for every 1 million fans. More than 110 million fans attended Major and Minor League games in the United States in 2009, which means that 3,850 injuries, reported or not, are likely to have occurred.

The study also indicated the areas along the first- and third-base sides of the field are the worst for fan safety and that the majority of injuries result from foul balls.

Most professional teams – including the Austin-local Triple-A Round Rock Express – post warning signs throughout their stadiums and make both pre-game and in-game announcements urging fans to keep their eye on the ball.

San Angelo went a step further before this season, becoming one of the only ballparks in the country to stretch its protective netting behind home plate to the ends of the dugouts on the first- and third- base sides.

“Some fans don’t want the screen and stretching it beyond the dugouts isn’t really feasible because of design,” Babcock said. “But we’ve got families that want to be close, so we put the extra netting up as a precaution.”

Similar precautions have yet to be mandated by Major or Minor League Baseball, partially because the threat of serious injury hasn’t been deemed significant and safety laws vary for each team.

“Because every ballpark configuration is different and the law varies from state to state there are no one-size-fits all rules,” said Minor League Baseball spokesperson Steve Densa.

Professional hockey has taken a vastly different approach to fan safety.

The National Hockey League implemented league-wide changes eight years ago after 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil – perched more than 100-feet behind the glass – was killed by an errant puck while watching the Blue Jackets and the Calgary Flames at Nationwide Arena.

In light of Cecil’s death – the first spectator death in NHL history – the league acted quickly, raising the protective glass five feet beyond the rink boards and mandating safety nets be draped behind the each end of the hockey arenas by November 2002.

Penalties are now assessed for any player who chucks the puck over the glass.

“Obviously this reduces the number of pucks that leave the playing surface,” said NHL spokesman Frank Brown, who noted that over the last five seasons netting has stopped more than 23,700 errant pucks. “Generally, if not scientifically, it seems reasonable to infer that these measures have enhanced the safety of the spectators.”

Over the last 123 years, three deaths at Major or Minor League parks have resulted from foul balls, including Whitehead’s.

Alan Fish – a 14-year-old Little League pitcher from Los Angeles – was sitting along the first base side of Dodger Stadium on May 16, 1970 when Manny Mota crushed a foul ball that struck him in the left temple. Fish was treated and remained at the game, but died four days later from his injury.

Fish’s death preceded that of Dominic LaSala, 68, who died after being struck by a foul ball at a minor league game in Miami a decade earlier.

While more than 40 years separated the tragedy that befell Fish and the one which ended the life of Whitehead, the time in-between hasn’t been without injury.

“We get a lot of balls into the stands every night,” said Dave Fendrick, general manager of Round Rock, affiliate of the Houston Astros. “That doesn’t mean that every shot hits someone, though. A good portion go out of the stadium, clip signs, fall into empty seats or are just lazy pop-ups.”

A 33-year veteran of professional baseball, Fendrick said he’s witnessed just a handful of serious fan injuries, including one this season when a line drive zipped into the crowd along the third base side and struck a 9-year-old girl. She was rushed to Dell Children’s Hospital and released the next day with a swollen eye and a severely broken nose.

Before being struck by Oklahoma City’s Endy Chazvez, the damaging pitch registered at 86-miles-per-hour.

“Fans come to the game with their gloves to catch a foul ball,” Fendrick said. “They have the option to sit in spots where foul balls are more prevalent or to sit in other sections. Given the choice, most people would probably want a chance at a foul ball, but no one wants to get hit.”

“Fan safety is a top priority for us, and for any sport. We go to great lengths to make sure they have a good time, and have it safely.”

But in baseball, where fans are accustomed to a certain closeness to the action, such safety measures might draw fire. That makes limited netting, posted signs and public address announcements the best measures of defense – measures that couldn’t stop a liner from shattering a little girl’s nose or taking the life of Wendy Whitehead.

“You don’t ever get over something like that,” Babcock said. “Until you’ve seen it, you just don’t know how tragic it is.”