Archive for Sunday, May 12, 2002

Safety concerns should be addressed

Fans in prime seats are at risk

May 12, 2002


— Line drives don't care about you or me or anybody else. They don't care that you have the best seats in the ballpark or that you're involved in a fascinating discussion about the infield-fly rule.

Line drives care about getting somewhere fast. They want to get from Point A to Point B, and if Point B happens to be your cranium, well, too bad.

Major League Baseball officials aren't saying much about it, so I'll say it for them: If you're sitting near the dugouts in any major league park, you're risking serious injury. And there are only two possible reasons for parents to have their children sitting along the baselines: They either aren't aware of the danger or they're completely out of their minds.

If you think these are the ramblings of a skittish sports columnist, think again. Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Matt Stairs, a former Cub, said you couldn't pay him to let his three daughters sit near a dugout at any ballpark.

"No chance," he said. "I want them behind home plate (where there is a screen) or I want them in the family room. They can watch the game on TV."

If a major league ballplayer is worried about fans' safety, shouldn't we be worried about it too?

MLB needs to erect screens or Plexiglas barriers to stop those line shots, but officials don't see the need. It's going to take injuries or lawsuits or governmental intervention to change thingsor worse.

Safety at sporting events has been a hot issue since 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died after getting hit by a puck at a Columbus-Calgary hockey game two months ago in Ohio. Baseball has received some deflected attention from the tragedy, but not enough.

Officials are quick to point out that only one person has ever died from being struck by a foul ball at a major league game, to which I would say: Miracles happen, over and over again.

Studies have shown that a ball hit off a big league hitter's bat can easily exceed 100 m.p.h. That would give someone near the first- and third-base dugouts about half a second to react. In other words a child would have no chance of getting out of the way.

Two years ago at Comerica Park in Detroit, a nasty line shot off the bat of Texas' Ruben Mateo hit 9-year-old Joey Siket in the head. He needed 412 hours of surgery to drain a blood clot that had formed beneath his fractured skull. Siket was sitting in the first row behind the visitors' dugout.

"The photographs of what happened to him are horrendous," said attorney James O. Elliott, who helped the Sikets reach a settlement with the Tigers. "His face was blown up bigger than a pumpkin."

This is a call for fans to understand that being a spectator at a major league park is a contact sport. It's a call for parents to understand that when they want to treat their kids to some prime seats at the ballpark, danger is only a foul ball away.

MLB refuses to put up protective barriers out of concern the baseball experience would be lessened for fans who would then stay away. Of course, if screens are such a turnoff, why are seats behind home plateall protected by a screenso popular?

Some teams have put up fences or netting in front of dugouts to protect their players from balls, so why don't they protect the fans who sit near those same dugouts?

"It's such a fine line between the safety issues and the fans themselves not wanting (a screen) to take away from the experience," MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney said. "But I know from being at different stadiums, and especially when you're having a conversation with the person next to you, you've really got to be paying attention to the game."

Fan injuries isn't one of MLB's favorite topics. Many of the newer ballparks were designed to get spectators closer to the action. Thus there is an increased chances of injuries and lawsuitsor worse.

"As a batter the first reaction when you hit a line drive in the stands is to turn your head away," Stairs said. "You don't want to see what happens."

Nobody does. But people need to open their eyes.

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