The day was golden: no clouds, toasty sun, timely breezes as if ordered from an app. The seats were sweet: Section 121, Row C, close enough to see Hunter Pence’s jersey-strangling back muscles in the on-deck circle, privileged enough to be sitting near Giants bossman Larry Baer. This was the $250-a-seat StubHub baseball experience, beside the home dugout at AT&T Park, and I had found my legal form of ecstasy except for one constant, nagging issue.
Every time a batter swung, my eyes laser-beamed toward home plate, and an inner voice — one I hadn’t heard since I was a teen infielder — filled my head:
“Keep your eye on the ball. It’s coming your way.”
That’s how The Year From Projectile Hell has jolted me, a season that seems to invite tragedy every time a rapidly moving baseball or piece of wood flies into the stands. A purist, I used to view foul balls as a cool part of the fan experience, a chance for a dad to catch a ball and hand it to his young son and, thus, create a circle of sporting life. But after watching too many fans carted out of stadiums, bloodied and bruised and headed to emergency rooms, I’ve become an alarmist.
Someone is going to die at a ballpark.
There hasn’t been a foul-ball-related fatality in a major-league stadium since 1970, when Alan Fish, 14, was hit in the left temple at Dodger Stadium. But the day is coming. The most frightful recent evidence came last month at Boston’s Fenway Park, where a splintered portion of a bat swung by A’s infielder Brett Lawrie struck a woman in the face. The amount of bleeding and screaming was disturbing enough that players were seen turning their heads, and the victim, 44-year-old Tonya Carpenter, was hospitalized with what were called life-threatening injuries. She survived surgery but remains in a rehab facility, where doctors say she has made significant progress.
The previous month, at AT&T, a young boy was rushed out of the stands for medical care after he was hit by a foul ball. Then there was the young boy in the front row in Philadelphia, hospitalized for the same reason. Before that, a woman in Pittsburgh had her back to the field in the front row when she was struck by a foul ball that actually was partially absorbed by a protective screen. Then came the woman in Milwaukee, sitting several rows behind the dugout, who was hit by a line drive and carted away with a towel over her head. Earlier this month, back in Boston, Red Sox fan Stephanie Wapenski needed three dozen stitches in her forehead after she was hit with a foul ball along the third-base line. This came a year after her fiance, a Yankees fan, had proposed to her at Fenway.
“It was like it knew who I was and had a vendetta,” she said of the foul ball, off the bat of Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius.
Even a little bit of levity can’t apply here. At a time when the entire in-game presentation is faster — including pitchers throwing with more velocity, hitters swinging maple bats more viciously and teams offering potential distractions such as high-tech scoreboards, free smartphone Wi-Fi and at-your-seat food service — why is Major League Baseball dawdling on this extremely dangerous issue? Why is Rob Manfred, the first-year commissioner, acting like the former commissioner, the Mr. Magoo-like Bud Selig? Why hasn’t Manfred asked the 30 franchises to extend the protective netting and screens that currently exist only for seating areas behind home plate?
“I don’t like to be reactive,” Manfred explained earlier this week at an All-Star Game news conference in Cincinnati. “Obviously, we had a very serious injury [in Boston]. It concerns us. But making a major change in the game in a reactive mode, I believe, is a mistake. I think the most likely course for us is that the evaluation will continue this season and whatever change, if we decide to make one, will be something that will be a new regulation applicable to the clubs for next year.”
He doesn’t like to be reactive? Who is Manfred taking lessons from, Roger Goodell? Did he not read the 2014 Bloomberg News study that said 1,750 fans are injured each year by foul balls alone at major-league games? You can tell the new commish is a lawyer by trade. With his unfortunate “reactive” comment, he’s thinking in terms of money instead of consumer safety. See, if netting is extended in the stands down the first- and third-base lines, many fans may not want to pay premium prices for those obstructed views. As it is, seats behind the backstop aren’t the most popular inside a ballpark; who wants to pay big bucks to watch a three-hour game through mesh? So owners are reluctant to extend the netting and lose money, even if it means someone losing a life. These wealthy men are swimming in unprecedented prosperity within their industry. Can’t they figure out a solution instead of just sitting there, waiting for more blood to spill and more medics to arrive?
“We set minimum standards. Obviously, the clubs remain free to do what they want in their own ballparks,” said Manfred, passing the buck. I emailed Baer last week and asked him to explain the Giants’ position. So far, I haven’t heard back, and I think I know why: litigation.
It was inevitable that a class-action lawsuit would be filed. And seeing how the Giants and A’s have been directly impacted by injured fans this season, it’s fitting that the federal suit would happen in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. The initiator is Gail Payne, an A’s season-ticket holder who has been going to games at the Coliseum since 1968. She says her seats, along the first-base line in Section 211, leave her and her family exposed because they aren’t guarded by netting or screens.
“Spectators have no protective equipment,” the lawsuit reads. “They are not as familiar with the game as professional players. Some in exposed sections are sitting closer to the action than the batter is to the pitcher.”
Yet Manfred isn’t doing a damned thing this season, leaving more than three months for additional injuries. The NHL used to be stubborn about installing netting above the glass behind the goal line. It took the death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, whose skull was fractured by a puck at a game in Columbus, for the league to add the necessary protection in every arena.
The players association would love to get involved. Think Lawrie isn’t having nightmares about that broken bat? A player doesn’t deserve to have a clouded conscience because stadiums don’t have netting, or because the commissioner hates to be “reactive” and owners hate losing revenue.
“Obviously, you want everyone who comes to the ballpark to be safe and enjoy the ballpark, and we believe there are some opportunities to address some of those issues to provide that kind of safety support here moving forward,” union chief Tony Clark said. “It is definitely a topic that players will want to engage in, have engaged in, are looking forward to engaging in.”
The day I sat way down low at AT&T, a foul ball off Brandon Crawford’s bat shot into the stands. It’s a good thing 10-year-old John Pizzi, a Giants fan from San Anselmo, reacted quickly, leaned left and caught the liner with his glove in the first row by the visitors’ dugout.
Or the ball would have struck his father, who was looking away, in the head.Alan FishAT&T ParkBrett LawrieBud SeligFenway ParkGail PayneLarry BaerO.co ColiseumOakland A'sRob ManfredSan Francisco GiantsTony ClarkTonya Carpenter