By Jordon Kobritz
Major League Baseball may have a safety issue. But contrary to what you might be thinking, this one isn’t due to the action on the field.
Much has been made over the recent spate of fan injuries resulting from foul balls and pieces of shattered bats flying into the stands. The most recent injury to garner headlines occurred on May 24 at Yankee Stadium during a game between the Yankees and Kansas City Royals. The Yankees’ Chris Carter broke his bat and the barrel flew into the stands, injuring a young boy sitting a few rows behind the third base dugout.
Two years ago, MLB “urged,” but did not require, clubs to expand ballpark netting down each foul line a minimum of 70 feet from home plate. According to the league, all teams have complied with the recommendation and nine teams have extended the netting at least 20 feet further. Among the reasons teams are reluctant to extend netting beyond 70 feet from home plate are difficulties related to ballpark construction and the fear that fans who want to snag a foul ball, and are willing to risk their safety to do so, will be reluctant to pay premium prices for seats that no longer provide that opportunity.
If one Councilman in New York City has his way, local ballparks may not have a choice in the matter. On May 8, Councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr. of Brooklyn introduced legislation that would require ballparks with more than 5,000 seats to provide netting from home plate all the way down to the foul poles in left and right field. If passed, the bill would apply to the Yankees, Mets and their Class A Minor League affiliates on Staten Island and in Brooklyn, respectively. Currently, the netting at Yankee Stadium ends on the home plate side of each dugout, which wasn’t far enough to protect the young fan who was injured last month.
While momentum may be building for additional ballpark netting, there’s another safety issue that may be even more controversial. A number of fans, 25 since 1969 according to the website Death at the Ballpark, have fallen to their deaths in MLB stadiums. That’s hardly an epidemic considering the billions — literally — of fans who have attended MLB games in the past 48 years. However, that’s scant comfort to those who have lost a loved one as a result of injuries suffered in a ballpark fall.
The latest death occurred as a result of a fall on May 16 when 42-year-old Rick Garrity tried to climb a railing on an upper deck ramp as he was exiting Wrigley Field in Chicago. Garrity suffered significant injuries in his fall and died the next day.
Garrity’s death and those that proceeded his have fostered a debate on the proper height of railings at MLB stadiums. Code requirements vary from one jurisdiction to another and also depend on the location within the facility and when the stadium was constructed. For example, minimum heights generally vary from 26 inches in seating areas to 42 inches in non-seating areas such as ramps. Furthermore, existing stadiums are mostly “grandfathered,” meaning if they met the code minimums at the time they were constructed they are under no obligation to comply with higher standards contained in newer codes. Garrity fell over a 36-inch railing, which, although it met code requirements, is less than the 42-inch height recommended by a number of safety experts.
Could a higher railing have prevented Garrity’s death? The Cubs say no, but Garrity’s family and proponents of higher railings argue that it may have deterred him from engaging in risky behavior.
Autopsies concluded that many of the victims of ballpark falls were legally intoxicated and at least three fans committed suicide. Most deaths resulted from fans engaging in dangerous — even death defying — activities, such as jumping from ramp to ramp, climbing a wall, and sitting and/or sliding on railings. One fan fell to his death while trying to do a handstand on the upper deck. At least two fans died while attempting to snag baseballs. The latter two deaths may have been prevented if the entire stadium had been enveloped in netting, but doing so would limit the experience of going to the ballpark for some fans.
Should MLB be responsible for protecting fans from themselves, especially when it interferes with sightlines and inconveniences the majority of the league’s fans? Where does individual responsibility end and the obligation of institutions like MLB begin?
Safety measures at ballparks can always be improved, but at what cost?
The author is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.