Death at the Ballpark: Will Youth Sports Have Precautions Too?
9 Sep, 2015By: Mary Helen Sprecher
The headlines shouted it. The bloggers posted it. The players tweeted it. Nobody disagrees that baseball stadiums need to be built with more spectator safety measures.
The question is this: Is it just the big leagues that need to watch out?
The sports world is already on notice in the wake of an Atlanta fan falling to his death from an upper deck at Turner Field – something that came just days after a Massachusetts woman filed a lawsuit because of the injuries she sustained at a Red Sox home game in Fenway Park in 2014 when she was struck by a ball while sitting an area that should have been (but wasn't) protected by impact-resistant glass.
It’s not like nobody noticed the need for safety. In July of 2015, a class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court in San Francisco seeking to have Major League Baseball install protective netting down the baselines. (Currently, such netting is typically used only directly behind home plate.)
But nobody seems to have thought of the obvious. Youth sports facilities are being made bigger and more elaborate each year, as developers endeavor to try to give kids that pro player experience. Plenty of those stadiums now have the upper decks and the baseline seating found in adult venues.
So if MLB decides to install safety netting to deflect foul balls or other objects, will youth stadiums follow? Should they?
There will be two camps on this: those devoutly in favor of every precaution that can be taken, and those who view it as too much of a knee-jerk reaction. To a certain extent, whether or not safety measures make their way to youth baseball or softball will depend on governing bodies' views of liability. The present scenario likely is not encouraging; this has been a bad season for baseball spectators. (It has been a bad year for baseball as a whole, considering the death of a Kansas batboy who was hit by a swinging bat.)
But Fenway, already in a precarious position after the 2014 incident, was the site of two more injuries in 2015 – one when a woman was hit by a piece of a broken bat, suffering life-threatening injuries, and another when a woman was hit by a foul ball, necessitating 40 stitches. And in late August, a woman was struck by a foul ball during a Detroit Tigers home game, and had to be removed from the stadium by EMTs. It prompted a flurry of Twitter comments, particularly from Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, who urged MLB to make changes “before it’s too late.”
According to an article in USA TODAY SPORTS, MLB is taking notice. "We are in the midst of a comprehensive study related to fan safety and are evaluating a number of issues,'' said Pat Courtney, chief communications officer for Major League Baseball. "If MLB and its clubs determine changes are necessary, then it is anticipated that a complete proposal would be made this off-season, ahead of the 2016 season.''
If MLB parks decide to implement safety precautions, it may send a strong message to high school, Little League, rec league and others to take realistic steps of their own, given the facilities, the sport and the level of competition. Not all facilities will need the same level of safeguards as an MLB park, for example, but baseline recommendations could be hammered out that would allow for a balance between panic and preparedness.
As a side note, should baseball and softball wind up making it back into the Olympics, it will be interesting to see what kind of spectator safeguards would be in place for that level of play. We have already seen that baseball isn't the only problem area; Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, saw three fans injured when a bolt fell from a roof, and several seasons prior, two fans fell fell off a deck when a railing detatched.
Unfortunately, if a ball (or bat, or anything else) flies unexpectedly, fans often don’t have time to react.
“Remember Brittanie Cecil?” the USA TODAY article asked. “She was the 13-year-old girl who went to a hockey game in 2002 in Columbus, Ohio. A puck flew up and hit her in the head. She suffered a fractured skull and died two days later. The NHL immediately ordered all of its teams to install netting above the glass. Do we need that kind of senseless tragedy for baseball to come to its senses? Those ballpark signs of "Please Stay Alert to Bats and Balls Leaving the Field,'' simply don't suffice.”
And they really don’t suffice in the era of smartphones, selfies and social media check-ins, which provide additional distractions.
Even if a fan is less likely to be hit by flying bat shrapnel or an explosively powered foul ball at a youth game (and with kids training harder and maturing earlier, it's not impossible any longer), there are still the upper decks of the great new ballparks to be reckoned with – and those see plenty of excited fans, particularly of the parental persuasion.
The concept of safety measures is starting to look a little less outlandish, all things considered – even if just from a financial standpoint. Youth sports already live in a fishbowl of lawsuits. So far this year, parents have sued coaches, officials and administrators because of everything from sweaty gym mats that allegedly caused MRSA in high school wrestlers, to trying to get judges to mandate the presence of medical personnel at youth soccer games and practices, to lawsuits claiming children are spending too much time on the bench.
And that’s just the tip of it. So if something really devastating and catastrophic happens at a youth sports facility, you can bet someone in the crowd is ready to scroll through their contacts and find a lawyer.
But the very serious issue of spectator safety is still at the heart of it all.
"It really scares me when I'll turn around,'' St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told USA TODAY SPORTS, "and I'll see in these really close seats people that I know can't defend themselves, whether it be young kids or elderly people or people just not paying attention…I know I don't want my family getting anywhere close to those close seats without some sort of netting in front of them.''