Few baseball fans ever look at the back of their tickets to read the warning there –cast in legal terms—that the ticket holder is assuming the risks of injury or worse involved in attending the game.
The tragic death recently of a young father who fell out of the stands at a Texas Rangers game underscores those risks and has raised questions as to the kinds of preventive measures that might be taken to increase protections for fans.
How many times during a game does a batted ball get lined sharply into the stands?
Similarly, how many times does the bat fly out of the batter’s hands and into the crowd?
To be sure, there are protective wire mesh fences around the home plate area but there are many sections in which fans are totally exposed to injury.
Years ago when the eponymous Turner Field in Atlanta was brand new, I went there with the man himself, the ebullient Ted and he proudly showed me his seats in the front row owners box. The box was and is still exceptionally to close to home plate and Ted was concerned enough to ask my opinion.
“Hey Commish, what do you think? Is this too close? Do we need a screen?”
His wife at the time, Jane Fonda, stood nearby and Ted was obviously seeking confirmation of his belief the risks were acceptable.
I should have deflected the question but did not. I told him the box was way too close and he ought to have a wire screen installed. At that the “Mouth of the South” turned toward Jane and in a loud voice bellowed, “The commissioner wants a screen here Jane. That would be no fun. That would be like sex with a condom.” There were several dozen fans within hearing range and they were greatly amused.
But, as usual ,Ted had a valid point albeit articulated in a crude way.
There is tension between the reduction of risks and unfiltered and close proximity to the action. The same tension exists when fans crowd around the tees at golf tournaments with the result some are occasionally hit by errant shots. Deaths and injuries at car races are not uncommon.
If the authorities in sports want to increase the protections for fans they will provoke resistance from those willing to take considerable risks-- as Ted Turner was -- to be up close to the players.
In baseball the relatively new custom of tossing the ball into the stands after the third out is also increasing risks to fans. The death in Texas occurred when the fan tried to catch a ball tossed his way from the field. The fan was so intent on securing the ball for his son who was at his side he lost his balance and fell. Now the Rangers have announced there is talk of additional screening to restrain fans from leaning over the railings in upper stands.
Years ago in Japan there were so many bloody fights among fans over balls hit into the stands the authorities decided to impose a requirement the ball had to be returned to ushers. The fans who hand over the balls are rewarded with a small memento. Their system works but it is somewhat stunning to see the Japanese fans politely returning the potential souvenir. And one has to wonder whether our culture would adapt to the imposition of forced civility. Our fans seem to relish the fights over potential souvenirs.
I have long marveled at how few fans are serious harmed by ball and bats flying into crowded stands. I favor increased screening though I accept the wisdom of making such protective fences out of the finest and least visible mesh.
Perhaps additional warnings of the need to be attentive to the risks of injury can be made by public address announcers but as I watch games on television I am fascinated at how many fans are so busy talking to their neighbors or eating they are paying no attention to the events on the field. Those fans need to be protected by screens as many but not all are.
I do not think we need to ban the tossing to balls into the stands. But the plan announced by the Texas Rangers, according to the Associated Press, “to make all the protective railings at their stadium the same height, raising some as much as a foot to make their stadium safer” will, we can hope, inhibit the kind of fan behavior that resulted in the death of the Texas fan.
The upper stands at many stadiums are now so high and fans chase foul balls with such blind intensity that one can easily imagine more tragedies unless those front row seats are better insulated.
Still, Ted surely had a point even if his simile was a bit graphic.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.