Baseball's Missile Problem
How dangerous are those foul balls that fans clamor for at baseball games?
Baseball's Missile Problem
Frank Fitzpatrick, Inquirer Sports Columnist
(When a Texas Rangers fan, trying to catch a ball thrown his way by Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton, fell to his death Thursday night, the questions about baseballs hit and thrown into the stands were raised again: Should players be tossing balls to fans, often precipitating mad rushes and angry skirmishes? And how dangerous are those balls hit into the stands, often at great velocity? While MLB is expected to take some action on how and if players can throw balls to fans, here’s an examination of the latter phenomenon.)
Stephanie Rutherford was sitting behind home plate in the upper deck of Detroit's old Tiger Stadium on April 14, 1999, when she reached for some of her boyfriend's popcorn. As she turned back toward the field, a foul ball slammed into her left eye.
The 37-year-old nurse's aide eventually lost that eye. Vision in the other eye deteriorated so badly that she lost her job, too. She could no longer afford her car or her apartment, and the medical bills were overwhelming.
The Tigers gave her $5,000, the maximum their insurance policy permitted. Rutherford sued and eventually was awarded $1 million.
Rutherford's case was a chilling reminder of one of baseball's great dilemmas: Those foul balls that most fans hope to snare can come screaming into the stands as 100-m.p.h. missiles.
Only one fan has ever died after being struck by a foul ball from a big-league bat, but nobody knows how many are injured each season. The clubs either can't or won't release a figure. Rutherford's lawyer, James O. Elliott, says his research shows the toll may be as high as "one significant injury per ball game."
The death of a teenage girl in Ohio who was hit by a puck at a National Hockey League game in 2002 briefly brought the issue of fan safety into sharp focus.
With pitchers throwing harder than ever, homer-hungry hitters swinging with increased velocity, and a new generation of intimate retro-ballparks bringing fans closer to the action, watching a ball game may be a little riskier than it used to be.
Elliot termed the areas between home plate and first base and home plate and third base as “war zones".
If foul balls pose a hazard to fans, an increasingly litigious society poses its own risks for ball clubs, even though the American legal system traditionally has protected stadium owners from liability in most cases.
"I think, in general, the law in Pennsylvania says that in most situations the spectator assumes the risk," Ronald L. Wolf, a personal-injury lawyer with the Center City firm of Litvin, Blumberg, Matusow & Young, said in 2002. "But there have been exceptions."
The Phillies must weigh the risk of potential lawsuits against the demands of season-ticket holders who don't want their high-priced views obstructed by additional netting behind home plate or by hockey-like Plexiglas shields down the base lines.
"We have fans," Mike Stiles, the Phillies' vice president for operations, said in 2002,“who want foul balls hit to them."
In the minds of many spectators, the allure of catching a foul ball outweighs the potential danger of taking one in the chops. That attitude, plus state laws that hold baseball fans responsible for their own safety, is why at Citizens Bank Park and most ballparks, the only protection is a 30- to-40-foot-wide net screen behind the catcher that goes up and over the area directly behind home plate.
Elliott, has sued the Tigers successfully on the grounds that warnings on the back of tickets and pregame advisories are insufficient notice of danger. He is one of the few to have studied the phenomenon of baseball fan injuries closely, examining stadium medical reports and talking with longtime employees and fans. Using that information, he has charted the sections of ballparks that are most susceptible to these injuries.
About 35 to 40 batted balls usually reach the stands during a major-league game, Elliott estimates, based primarily on his research of games at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park.
"By far, the most dangerous place to be is along the first- and third-base lines," he said. "But we've seen injuries all over the ballpark."
Teams could cut foul-ball injuries "as much as 80 percent" by putting up "a three-foot high Plexiglas screen from first base to third base," Elliott said. "But teams won't do it because the fans buying the most expensive seats don't want it."
Close-in baseball spectators who are paying attention and have healthy instincts might have as long as "three blinks of an eye" to duck or react to a line-drive foul, according to Yale University physicist Robert Adair.
"The bottom line is if you are really watching the game and you have a minimum of baseball experience, there's no way you should be hit by a foul ball," said Adair, who has written a book, The Physics of Baseball, first published in 1990.
Elliott, however, suggested that reaction time might be as little as "one-half to three-quarters of a second" on a hard-hit foul, far too quick for a youngster, a woman unfamiliar with baseball, or an aged fan to dodge it.
Stiles said the Phillies, like all other major-league teams, traditionally have not kept records on the number of fans injured by fouls.
"It's ridiculous to think that baseball teams, which keep statistics on every trivial thing, don't know how many fans are hurt in their stadiums," said Elliott, "but that's what they testify to in court. We got a hold of the Tigers' medical-incident records, and what we saw were numerous lacerations, broken facial bones, dislocated fingers."
In 1995, a Colorado Rockies official revealed that 45 fans were injured by foul balls during games that year at Mile High Stadium, then the National League team's home park. But revelations like that are rare.
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in the game's long history, only five fans at professional baseball games have been killed by foul balls, only one at a major-league game.
In May 1970, 14-year-old Alan Fish was hit in the head as he watched a game at Dodger Stadium. He was given two aspirin and returned to his seat. Four days later, he died from a severe brain injury.
But according to the book, Death at the Ballpark, foul balls have caused 75 deaths at baseball games - at all levels - over the years.
A solution would be simple. In Japan, the protective mesh screens that protect fans from screaming foul balls extends all the way to the outfield walls. Commissioner Bud Selig said baseball didn't do that because fans didn't want their view obstructed.
If figures about these hazards are scarce, anecdotes are not.
Former Phillies star Richie Ashburn, who was famous for fouling off pitch after pitch, used to tell a story about injuring an old lady at Shibe Park with a foul ball, then hitting her again as she was being taken away for medical attention.
"I was at a game with my wife last year, sitting in the last row of the 200 level," Stiles said. "She was talking to someone when this foul ball came back. I stuck my hand out and deflected it. That was the only thing that saved her from a pretty good shiner."
There is some dispute about how quickly foul balls enter the stands. Elliott said his research showed that line drives can travel 125 m.p.h. But Adair disagreed.
"You may see that kind of velocity with a ball maybe on a 470-foot home run," he said. "Generally, though, I'd say it's more likely to be going at about 80 miles an hour."
In college games, Adair said, the risk is far greater since aluminum bats might add an extra 6 or 7 m.p.h. to their speed.
"Most of these teams tell you that you have to be paying attention [to avoid injuries]," Elliott said. "But until you get hit by one, you have no idea how fast that ball can get on you."