Spectator Injuries at the Ballpark

Does the “Baseball Rule” need to be revisited?

Spectators and baseball stadium employees occasionally suffer injuries from home run balls and shattered bats flying into the stands. However, foul balls were the most frequent cause of the 1,750 spectator injuries that occurred last year in major league baseball, according to Elias Sports Bureau.  That number translates to about two injuries for every three games. That’s more than the 1535 occurrences of batters being hit by pitches in the 2013 season.

What’s worse is the rising trend in foul ball injuries. Contributing to the increase in incidents are seats in the new and renovated ballparks being seven percent closer to the field, stronger players, and spectators who are increasingly distracted by smart phones and the flashing messages and graphics on enormous electronic scoreboards.

Hard-hitting facts

Fans have almost no time to respond to foul balls driving into the stands, sometimes at more than 100 mph. A ball traveling at 80 mph is traveling 117 feet per second. Spectators sitting 150 feet from home plate have only a second to dodge the missile.

In response to the 2002 death of a fan by a flying puck, the National Hockey League required netting behind the goal and taller Plexiglas shields over the side boards. Major League Baseball has done almost nothing to reduce such risks and maintains that individual teams are responsible for the safety of spectators. Following the death of a minor league first-base coach in 2007 after being hit by a line drive into foul territory, it was mandated that all base coaches must wear helmets.

The “Baseball Rule” culture

The courts are apparently paying attention:  judges hearing appeals in Georgia and Idaho this year rejected arguments invoking the “Baseball Rule.” That’s a long-standing principle that absolves stadium owners and teams from liability as long as the spectators in the seats behind home plate are protected by netting.

MLB teams are responsible for their stadium backstop designs, display of warning signs and following local safety ordinances. Injuries this year took place in seating in field level and 2nd-tier seats, as well as the higher sections that are typical landing grounds for home run balls.

Source: David Glovin, bloomberg.com, 09 Sept. 2014.