ATLANTA — Evan Gattis, the 260-pound Atlanta Braves catcher, whipped his bat around on a 78-mile-per-hour curveball from Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels and smashed a line drive into foul territory. The ball skipped off the roof of the third-base dugout at Turner Field and hurtled into the crowd.
A woman raised her hands in triumph because a precious souvenir baseball was in the stands. A moment later, however, the fans were stunned and panicking.
The foul ball had clipped the index finger of fourth-grade teacher DeMarkus Taylor, who was sitting in the eighth row behind the dugout. After it glanced off Taylor's finger, it caught a small boy on the side of the head. Paramedics from Turner Field rushed to the boy in less than a minute. He was taken to a first aid station crying and given some ice for his head. He returned to his seat later in the game.
"It seemed to pick up speed after it hit the dugout — it was on us quick," said Taylor. He held up his index finger and wiggled it. "It's fine. My finger is fine. And the kid enjoyed the rest of the game."
It was a lucky escape that could have been much worse. Injuries to fans at Major League Baseball games happen every week of every season, and there is a debate about whether MLB can do more to protect fans from flying objects, like baseballs and bat pieces. There is also a debate as to whether the fans actually want to be protected.
Two cases wending their way through the courts threaten MLB's "limited duty rule," the so-called Baseball Rule, which holds that fans attend games at their own risk and have little chance of suing for damages for their injuries from flying objects. Courts have ruled that teams have the duty to warn, not protect. The legal arrangement was put in place decades ago to shield teams from cases arising from injuries to spectators, particularly those seated behind home plate. That area was referred to as the "slaughter pen" in the late 1800s, before netting was put up behind home plate.
But the danger is still present. On Aug. 30, 2010, a 6-year-old girl was sitting with her father behind the Braves dugout in Turner Field when she was struck in the head by a line drive foul ball. Her skull was fractured in 30 places and caused, according to court documents, "severe traumatic brain injury."
The Braves cited the 100-year-old Baseball Rule to quash a lawsuit brought by the child's father. The organization unsuccessfully asked to dismiss the case, which is now in the Court of Appeals for the State of Georgia. Major League Baseball got involved in January, filing an amicus brief supporting the Braves — because if the Braves lose, other teams might see their legal protections erode under a new precedent.
Injuries to fans at Major League Baseball games happen every week of every season, and there is a debate about whether MLB can do more to protect fans from flying objects, like baseballs and bat pieces. There is also a debate as to whether the fans actually want to be protected.
Nor is it just fast-moving baseballs that are a problem. America's sports stadiums also offer other, perhaps less obvious airborne hazards — like food.
On Sept. 11, 2013, the Missouri State Supreme Court heard a case brought by a man who was hit in the eye by a hot dog wrapped in foil. The hot dog was thrown by the mascot of the Kansas City Royals, and the plaintiff is seeking a payout to cover medical bills for a serious eye injury. Baseball clubs in the past have also been protected for such incidents, claiming fans accept the hazards of any flying objects at games.
The Royals tried to quash the case and failed. There could be a ruling any day now, according to the plaintiff's attorney.
At the heart of baseball's shield of liability is the Baseball Rule. But the issue, according to experts, is that the game has changed drastically in the past 100 years — with bigger players hitting the ball harder, the seating of fans closer to the field, and entertainment distractions galore that keep fans from focusing on the game. Lawyers for the girl injured at Turner Field in 2010 also pointed out that the prevalence of steroids allows players to hit the ball harder.
"When this limited duty rule was first used, you had big fields, and sometimes fans were very far from the action," said Gil Fried, a professor of the management of sports industries at the University of New Haven School of Business and a frequent expert witness for injury cases involving ballparks. "A lot of times you had people who parked their cars, or buggies, in the outfield to watch because they were so far away. People sat in suits and ties and hats. But things have changed quite a bit."
Fried said Major League Baseball needs to do the research on whether other areas of the ballpark — above the dugouts, for example — are safe or not.
"It's just like cars," he said. "Can you say we have made the safest car possible? Until you actually test it with crash dummies, you don't know what is and what isn't safe. On paper it could look great, but until you actually test it, you don't know. They have to test where the balls are actually landing and what is the speed when it hits different areas."
Patrick Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, said he does not know of a study that has been done on the speed of baseballs into the crowd.
"Due to a number of factors, including the different configurations and dimensions of our ballparks, as well as local codes and laws, each club individually determines what is appropriate within its park," Courtney said.
Due to a number of factors, including the different configurations and dimensions of our ballparks, as well as local codes and laws, each club individually determines what is appropriate within its park.
Major League Baseball
At the Braves game where the boy was hit on the head, it was apparent how much the game had changed. Fans looked down at cellphones as pitches were thrown. Kids fixated on the huge center field scoreboard as bats were swung. Vendors stood in aisles with tall cones of cotton candy, obstructing the view of the field for some fans. A woman holding a baby stood with her back to the field during one pitch. She was in Row 16 in the same section where the boy had been struck just six innings earlier.
Opinion about the issue among fans is mixed.
"I totally understand why some people would want a net up in this area. I get it. It's for safety," said Tom Brooks of Cumming, Georgia, who works in the insurance business. He was sitting in Row 12 behind third base with his 13-year-old son. "But you can't eliminate all risks. You can't do it," he said. "The ticket you buy does say you sit there at your own risk."
Brooks said that when he sits behind home plate at games he does not notice the netting after a few innings. He wonders if the same would be true with nets down the foul lines. The one drawback is that fielders would no longer be able to reach into the seats to snag foul balls just one row into the stands.
"Parents have to be responsible for their children, because these balls are rockets coming into the stands," said Lee Poolman, a season ticket holder from Sharpsburg, Georgia. "When my girls were 6, 7, 8 years old, I was always watching for foul balls. There is not much time to react."
Poolman said he remembers watching one fan try to catch a line drive with his bare hands. "He had been drinking [beer] the whole game, and here comes this ball, and he sticks his hand out to catch it," Poolman said. "His hand immediately swelled up. I'm pretty sure there was a broken bone there."
While a little boy stood a few feet away twirling a chain and looking out to center field, Poolman described how an elderly man walking on the concourse during one game did not see a foul ball coming and was struck in the chest. The man was taken out of the stadium on a stretcher in cardiac distress, Poolman said.
Fried said that Major League Baseball has mandated safety measures for coaches and players on flying objects, but that there should be more done for the fans. MLB's Courtney said the issue with nets is trying to strike a balance between safety and what the fans say they want: an unobstructed view of the field.
"We mandate netting and screens during batting practice, and many fans have indicated to clubs that they prefer that their views be unobstructed by nets down the lines," Courtney said.
Stadiums may make an announcement before the game, but during the Braves-Phillies game, for instance, not once was an usher heard cautioning fans to keep an eye on the batter.
"The more layering you can do to warn fans, the better," Fried said. "It is not enough to just have signs. Warn fans multiple times during the game of bats and balls flying into the stands. Make announcements.
"Someone is going to die, and then they are going to do something about it."