Take Me Out to the Ballgame – I’m Not Scared

Take Me Out to the Ballgame – I’m Not Scared

Rather than live in bubble wrap, I would prefer to be attentive for my own safety. Still, needless dangers that have easy solutions should be fixed.

Steven A. Adelman

Last month, after a lady was struck in the head by a piece of baseball bat during a game at Fenway Park, I was interviewed by a number of major media outlets about fan safety at baseball stadiums. On ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” for example, Bob Nightengale of USA Today spoke in favor of extending the netting behind home plate to protect more of the seating area; I said that one incident was not a good reason to change what had worked for generations, and that a reasonable fan sitting near the field should pay attention when the ball is in play.

For every cause, there is someone willing to fight. On July 13, 2015, several lawyers joined together to file a class action suit, Payne v. Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. The Complaint, which is the document with which every lawsuit begins, is actually interesting and well-written, although at 53 pages you may prefer this summary from The New York Times.

The proposed class representative, Gail Payne of Oakland, California, is described in the complaint as a “devout fan” of the A’s “for nearly 50 years,” although she bought her first ticket to a game this season. She has never been hit by a ball, bat or anything else, but she is nonetheless fearful for herself, her husband “and particularly for her daughter.”

The reason for her fear is contained in the rest of the Complaint. There, the lawyers provide anecdotes of fans being hit by balls or bats, offer comments by players worrying about fan safety, discuss the history of the area behind home plate (which they claim was called the “slaughter pen” at the beginning of the 20th century), and recount the Commissioner’s authority to make changes in this and other aspects of the Major League Baseball experience.

What is not discussed, however, is the role fans play in assuring their own safety, particularly when attending games whose prize possession is so coveted that attentive kids bring their own gloves and stupid fathers reach for foul balls even while holding their infants.

I don’t think warning signs cure every problem, but they do provide notice of foreseeable risks, and they are plastered on most flat surfaces at most ballparks.

And I’m not a baseball purist (with few exceptions, watching pitchers hit is just embarrassing), but I can manage to pay attention for the approximately 18 minutes of action during an average three-hour baseball game. When I can’t muster even that much focus, I sit further away, like in a sports bar or my living room. I’m pretty sure that’s what a reasonable patron should do.

I think the larger solution to the spasms of media coverage and hand-wringing is a healthy dose of what we lawyers call “evidence.” How’s this for a plan?

  • Every MLB team tracks their incidents requiring medical attention – let’s call them “injuries.” How about if every team compiles the injuries resulting from a ball or bat leaving the field? If anyone gets hurt when players fly into the stands for foul balls, I suppose those incidents can be added, too.

  • Given the proliferation of video cameras inside MLB stadiums, I bet the total number of objects flying from the field into the stands can be determined, if such statistics don’t already exist.

  • Likewise, the location of each flying object and each resulting injury can probably be plotted on a map, like PitchTrax for the stadium bowl.

  • And once we know where objects are going and where people are getting hurt, I bet the severity of injury can also be categorized. Doctors triage the severity of injuries in hospitals so I’m guessing similar logic would work here too.

By letting facts color our opinions and preconceived notions, we might learn something.

Maybe we would learn that, in some ballparks, some number of seats past the screen up the left field line has some greater likelihood of flying objects. In that case, bring your gloves, kids, and people who cannot or will not watch out should move to a more sheltered spot. (Economic rationality could solve this problem: if enough grownups prefer to avoid a dangerous “slaughter pen” and buy cheaper seats away from home plate, MLB teams would rush to extend the netting to fill their best seats again. Wait – if the danger is so great, wouldn’t that have already happened?) I don’t think it’s necessarily a “nanny state” solution to extend the screen, but some personal responsibility might go a long way. Commissioner Rob Manfred, can you direct some people to find out whether, and to what extent, a screen would help?

Or maybe the data would show no particular correlation between objects and injuries. It’s high time for someone to create a fan equivalent to Wins Above Replacement to calculate the likelihood that a reasonably attentive fan sitting in any given seat would get hurt by a ball or bat coming their way, as opposed to catching it or otherwise avoiding injury. FanGraphs, you got this?

As a frequent attendee at live events who does not live in a perpetual state of fear, I would prefer to be attentive for my own safety as an alternative to living in bubble wrap. On the other hand, needless dangers that have easy solutions should be fixed. I propose that we figure out which situation applies. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

P.S. Without objective data, it’s hard to know how dangerous any type of event really is. As this coverage of the British Open suggests, perhaps there is a greater risk from watching golf.