David Crisp: Baseball’s risks harder and harder to ignore

Imagine a sport in which part of the evening’s entertainment is, a couple of dozen times a game, to randomly fire hard objects traveling 100 mph at the fans in the stands.

Imagine that an average of two fans get hurt every three games, even when the game is played at the highest level.


David Crisp

Imagine the size of the class-action lawsuit that would be filed on behalf of the fans to stop this dangerous practice.

OK, stop imagining things. We already have such a sport. It’s called baseball.

The Billings City Council took a brief detour to the ol’ ball game at a work session last week after a council member in December wondered about safety risks at Dehler Park, where the Billings Mustangs and other local teams play.

In response, City Administrator Tina Volek produced a memo showing that the Mustangs had, at their own expense, twice installed new netting, in 2008 and 2012, at a total cost of more than $31,000.

Dave Heller, managing partner of the Mustangs, said the netting exceeds standards set by Major League Baseball.

That’s true, near as I can figure. Major league standards for the 2016 season call on all teams to have netting that reaches at least to the end nearest home plate of each dugout. The Mustangs extend netting at Dehler Park to the far end of each dugout.

That seemed to be enough to satisfy council members, especially after City Attorney Brent Brooks noted that the Mustangs have to provide liability insurance and agree to hold the city harmless in case of any injury.

“There’s no way to ensure 100 percent safety,” Brooks said.

So the question isn’t whether the Mustangs meet standards; the question is whether the standards themselves are good enough. And a class-action lawsuit filed last year against all major league teams may go a long way toward answering that question.

It’s a question that has been drawing increased attention from players, the news media and from, of course, lawyers. Bloomberg News in 2014 estimated that 1,750 fans are injured every year at major league baseball games—a number larger than the number of batters hit each season by a pitch.

The problem seems to be getting worse. Fans are about 7 percent closer to the action than they used to be, according to foulballz.com, a website devoted to the study of the foul ball. Pitchers throw harder, batters are more likely to use maple bats that shatter and send shards into the stands, and team owners litter the game with a growing number of distractions, such as team mascots, choreographed cheers and apps designed to keep eyes on the phone, not on the field.

The class-action suit, filed in San Francisco last year, alleges that baseball has been negligent both in providing distractions and in failing to protect fans by adding more netting, preferably from foul pole to foul pole.

If you like taking your kids to baseball games, you might not want to read the lawsuit online, or at least don’t look at the pictures. It lays out case after case of serious, often gruesome, injuries suffered by fans from foul balls rocketing into the stands.

Adding additional weight to the case is testimony from actual players, who see the carnage every day. Some of them note that even professional athletes, who are favored by evolution with lightning reflexes and who are trained to be constantly on the lookout, can’t always get out of the way of a hard-hit ball.

None of this impresses Edwin Comber, the proprietor of foulballz.com, who says that fans have nearly a half-second to react to foul balls hit their way—enough time to both duck and to contemplate next morning’s breakfast. He calls instead for family-friendly sections behind netting to keep small children out of the line of fire. (See below for clarification from Comber.)

Baseball has come a long way since its beginnings, when teams didn’t even put nets behind home plate and when crowds were invited to fill the outfield at sold-out games. And it faces a dilemma: Plenty of fans don’t like watching the game through a screen, thereby losing the chance to take home a souvenir ball.

I have a horse in this race. My wife and I have season tickets in one of the most exposed sections at Dehler Park, right past the third-base dugout. Just last season, even though I was alert and focused, a blistering foul caught me on the forearm as I was trying to lift my arms to fend it off.

No serious damage. The ball raised a nice knot on my arm, and the pain didn’t totally go away for a few weeks. But I don’t really even much worry about me. At my age, there are lots of worse ways to go than a sudden lights out in the middle of a pleasant day at the ballyard.

But I do feel a chill every time I see small children make their way into our section. I wonder what the chances are that I could stop a ball shooting toward one of those small heads, and I realize that the chances are somewhere very close to zero.

A lot of my best memories are somehow tied up in baseball, but some memories I never want to have to take home with me.

Editor’s note: Ed Comber wrote in to say: “You state I suggest child seating behind netting. I don’t, though. I recommend family-specific areas in each park that are well outside the range of 99% of foul balls. These areas would be in the upper decks and in the outfield box seats.”



Leave a Reply