Foul Ball Injuries to Spectators in MLB

Baseball Safety Netting

Current netting standards offer insufficient protection

Over the years, we’ve occasionally tackled the topic of foul ball injuries to baseball spectators. The problem is insufficient netting along the baselines and behind home plate. In 2018, a 79-year-old woman died from the injury sustained on her birthday by a foul ball at Dodgers Stadium.

In 2014, Dwayne Sowa sat just past third base and 18 rows from the field at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park. As he paid a vendor, a foul ball slammed into the right side of Sowa’s forehead. Sowa required surgery to repair a crushed bone above his right eye. Five years later, side effects plague him.

If his seat had been only a few feet further in toward home plate, he might not have been hit. That’s because the Phillies’ netting does not extend the full length of the first and third-base lines to the foul poles.

Who is doing what to reduce foul ball injuries

In December 2015, MLB recommended teams provide expanded netting to shield seats 70’ along both foul lines from home plate. But only a handful of teams followed through–until September 2017. That’s when a foul ball severely injured a little girl at Yankee Stadium. All teams then installed the recommended netting.

The Chicago White Sox led the league this year in extending protective netting all the way to the foul poles. Only 13 of the 30 MLB teams have plans to extend netting. Teams extending in the 2019 season are:

  • Chicago White Sox
  • Atlanta Braves
  • Washington Nationals
  • Baltimore Orioles
  • Los Angeles Dodgers
  • Houston Astros

Teams extending nets by 2020 are:

  • Arizona Diamondbacks
  • Kansas City Royals
  • Milwaukee Brewers
  • Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Texas Rangers
  • Toronto Blue Jays
  • Philadelphia Phillies

The other 17 teams have not announced plans for extending their netting.

The NBC News investigation into foul ball injuries

None of the 30 teams or MLB itself would give NBC information about the number of incidents and Foul Ball injuries in baseballinjuries at their ballparks. Some teams said they don’t track that data, others said it was a privacy issue.

Nonetheless, NBC News found that MLB reported 808 fan injuries from baseballs between 2012 and 2019. The majority of the injuries resulted from foul balls. Others resulted from home runs, batting practice, and fans scrambling to catch balls hit into the stands.

NBC’s numbers are based on news reports, lawsuits, social media postings and information from the contractors that provide first aid stations at MLB stadiums. The numbers are most likely much higher.

Bob Gorman, author of “Death at the Ballpark,” is sure of that. “I think the teams know it. I think they’ve intentionally downplayed it” he said.

The impact of a hit

Baseballs are hard and about the size of a small fist. Major league baseballs fly off the bat at 100 mph or more. It only takes about a second after leaving the bat to hit a fan at that speed. Who has the skill to catch that? Former Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones doubts he would.

“Even if I’m watching a game, and a 105 mph foul ball comes at me, and I’m ready for it, there’s still a good chance I could miss it,” he said.

The conditions of the ballpark, the equipment and even the technology of the game have changed. Players are stronger than ever, the pitchers throwing faster, and the balls coming off the bat harder. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the number of foul balls per game has increased by 10 percent since 2000.

Fans can’t be expected to pay attention to every minute of the game. They buy food from vendors in the stands, watch instant replays and entertainment on the large screens, keep their eyes on the scoreboards, and constantly look at and take pictures with their phones. In addition, the tempo of the game allows for fans to chat and cheer with seat mates, which keeps their eyes off the field.

What’s ahead?

Sowa initiated legal action against the Phillies but dropped the case after his attorney cited the longstanding “Baseball Rule.” Every ticket is stamped with the disclaimer that reads “the ticketholder assumes all risk, danger and injury incidental to the game of baseball…”

Sowa doesn’t attend baseball games anymore out of fear of being hit. He hopes all 30 teams will eventually extend their protective netting out to the foul poles. Because he looks forward to taking his 5-year old son to a game one day.

Source: Tak, Nguyen, Enoch and Lehren. “Foul balls hurt hundreds of fans at MLB ballparks. See where your team stands on netting.” 01 Oct., 2019.

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