An Oakland Athletics fan filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball this week, alleging that baseball doesn’t do enough to protect fans in the stands from flying bats and balls.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, including A’s season ticket-holder Gail Payne, aren’t seeking money.
Rather, Payne and others who filed the class-action suit in San Francisco want MLB to mandate the extension of protective screening down the baselines, so that it eventually reaches from foul pole to foul pole.
“She fears for her and her husband’s safety, and particularly for her daughter,” the lawsuit says. “She is constantly ducking and weaving to avoid getting hit by foul balls or shattered bats.”
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Such concern was renewed on June 5, when Red Sox fan Tonya Carpenter, 44, was severely injured by a piece of broken bat at Boston’s Fenway Park. She was sitting down the third-base line when she was struck by the flying shard of bat.
A 2014 Bloomberg News report found that nearly 1,750 fans are injured every year by foul balls.
“This is a needless risk,” one of the lawyers involved in Payne’s case, Robert Hilliard, told the Los Angeles Times. “Extending the nets will, as a fact, save lives.”
While installing additional netting in the name of enhanced safety is a relatively inexpensive proposition — about $8,000 to $12,000 per stadium, according to one vendor’s estimate — there are other factors involved.
Chief among them: that extra screening will interfere with the fans’ viewing experience.
Major League Baseball doesn’t dictate backstop dimensions, recommending only that screening be 60 feet behind home plate.
But in the wake of Carpenter’s injury in Boston, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said his office would take a closer look at fan safety.
“When you have an issue like this, an incident like this, you have to go back and re-evaluate where you are on all of your safety issues, and trust me, we will do that,” Manfred said during baseball’s amateur draft in June.
Nearly six weeks after Carpenter’s injury at Fenway, MLB is still re-evaluating.
“Fan safety is our foremost goal for all those who choose to support our game by visiting our ballparks, and we always strive for that experience to be safe and fan-friendly,” the league said in a statement responding to the San Francisco lawsuit. “Major League Baseball is in the process of re-evaluating all issues pertaining to fan safety, comfort and expectations.”
At Kauffman Stadium, cables with screening are connected to both the second and upper decks. The Royals, like MLB, have thought about adding more screening, but so far, vice president of community affairs Toby Cook said, such talk is “just a discussion more than anything.”
“Obviously, in the wake of what happened in Boston, we discussed it again,” Cook said. “The general feeling is that while we are not required to get MLB approval to do something like that, we would be the first team in MLB to do something like that.
“I think the general sense is that we’re going to wait for a while and just see if there’s a little bit more direction from MLB first. I would say it’s fair to say that we’ve discussed possibilities, and we would likely wait for further guidance from MLB.”
Greg Meeks is the second-generation operator of a Florida-based company called Turbo Link International that constructs and maintains backstop screens for the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field and several other teams’ spring training facilities.
Meeks said an extended screen system would take only three to five days to set up, and if a team were to extend its backstop screen by 30 feet in both directions, would cost somewhere between $8,000 and $12,000.
“Per facility, it’s just a matter of how far down the lines you’re going to go,” Meeks said.
The screen would be the made of the same material that currently protects fans sitting directly behind home plate. Meeks said the installation process would involve “putting in high bolts, turnbuckles, running your cable ... Each facility is different, so where you do that, you just have to go down an extra 100 feet or whatever it might be.”
To date, neither Major League Baseball nor individual teams have approached Turbo Link International about setting up additional screens.
“I’m sure they’re looking at it more closely,” Meeks said.
University of Kansas law professor Mike Kautsch said additional screening would serve “as a good business practice and to protect fans, as well as to protect the club’s team from tort (civil) law.”
Teams have other protections, too. Usually, there are disclaimers on the backs of tickets outlining the risks of being a spectator. At Kauffman Stadium, signs close to the field of play warn fans to “BEWARE OF BATS AND BALLS LEAVING THE PLAYING FIELD.”
Brent Coon, a Houston-based lawyer who has won several stadium injury cases (including one against the NFL’s Texans in 2011), said fans consent to the risk of being injured simply by attending a game.
“When you go to that event, you know there are physical activities taking place, and that there’s some foreseeable risk that you would get potentially injured during the flow of the game,” Coon said.
Hard-hit foul balls and broken bats are a part of the game, which makes it difficult to hold facilities and clubs accountable.
“Those (incidents) are reasonably foreseeable, and as a consequence, it’s very difficult to successfully sue,” Coon said. “Most people that do sue for significant injuries at major sporting events lose their case and they’re generally, more often than not, dismissed by the court.
“The courts have been pretty favorable to the sports industry, in giving them the latitude of providing a modest level of safety features.”
The most commonly used material in baseball screens is Dyneema, an ultra-strength synthetic fiber comprised partly of Kevlar. It absorbs foul balls with ease (it’s meant to withstand explosions) and resists any weather conditions.
Dyneema is also thin, allowing for minimal visual obstruction for fans sitting behind home plate.
Mike McKinnis, a Royals fan perched in the fourth row behind home plate during a recent game at Kauffman Staidum, said the screen didn’t affect his viewing experience. The screen is an afterthought when he’s that close, McKinnis said.
When the Sprint Center is set up for hockey, a Kevlar screen connects to the arched portion of the glass behind the goals, reaching 20 feet in the air.
From a visibility standpoint, arena spokeswoman Shani Tate said the Sprint Center has never received a complaint about the screen obstructing views of the action because the small twine size allows for favorable sight paths.
McKinnis said his feelings about expanded screening have changed over time.
“When I was a kid, I’d love to catch a ball and feel like it was coming at me at any second,” McKinnis said. “Not anymore. I want to go to a game and know I’m not going to get wounded by a projectile object.
“I think they’ve got to (extend the nets). I don’t think too many people would be upset.”
For now, baseball remains wary of ruining the vantage point of fans, especially those who pay top dollar for premium seats.
“Some of the changes would affect play on the field. The (players’ union) might be involved in those discussions,” Manfred said. “And then obviously us and the clubs. I mean, this is an important local issue, and as with all topics we want to make sure we know where our clubs are on a topic.”
The players have made clear their desire for more comprehensive screening, advocating for expanded protection in their 2007 and 2012 collective bargaining agreements with MLB, according to a report by Fox Sports.
On June 10, five days after Red Sox fan Carpenter was struck in Boston, Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie tweeted, “To the far end of the dugouts should be *minimum* of how far protective nets should stretch at MLB parks. Will not affect play. #MLBFanSafety”
Guthrie maintained his stance on the issue in an interview several days later.
“It wouldn’t matter for the players. It doesn’t affect us,” Guthrie said. “I don’t think there would be any opposition from players.”
Cook said the Royals don’t want anybody getting hurt, but “it’s a matter of, do you pull the trigger on something that’s dramatically different from a physical layout at the ballpark that we’ve never had before?”
In the stands, the debate continues.
Rick Waggener, a Royals fan seated recently on the first-base side at Kauffman Stadium, on the edge of where the screen ends, said he didn’t want the netting extended.
“I like seeing the open field,” Waggener said. “I mean, it’s been like this for how many years? I think if people pay attention, they should keep it open.
“You better be paying attention.”
Laurence Kelly, who sat in the sixth row on the third-base side at the front of the visitors’ dugout, said he favored safety over a better view.
He suggested installation of a shorter screen extending to the end of the dugouts, thus protecting fans in the first few rows from sharp line drives while not inhibiting the view of fans who are generally out of harm’s way.
Kelly’s idea is partially mimicked at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, where the screen behind home plate is normal sized, but a 4- - or 5-foot smaller screen extends from the main backstop to the edge of the dugout.
“You have to be paying attention 100 percent of the time, and people just aren’t doing that anymore,” Kelly said.
“It’s a great view,” he added, “until somebody gets hurt.”