In a Royals home game in 2011, 4-year-old Alexis Hoskey was sitting with her parents in seats located a few rows off the field on the third base side. During the game, left handed hitter Wilson Betemit hit a line drive foul ball into the stands. It struck Alexis in the face, fracturing her skull and causing a bleed in her brain.
Similar injuries have occurred in nearly all major league ballparks, and happen quite often. According to a 2014 Bloomberg Report, on average 1,750 fans are injured every year by foul balls and flying bats. Just this year, a woman at Fenway Park sustained life threatening injuries when a broken bat flew into the stands and struck her in the face. That injury garnered national attention and has led to renewed calls for Major League baseball to do more to protect fans.
Following that game, Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie tweeted that Major League Baseball should extend the protective netting at least to the dugouts. Guthrie has previously represented the players union in labor talks where he asked that the netting be extended to protect players and fans.
Currently, the netting is only behind home plate, and protects fans from foul balls and errant pitches that go straight back. Despite all of the injuries that occur past the netting, Major League Baseball and the team owners have collectively resisted extending the nets. The repeated reason cited is that it will negatively affect the fan experience.
As an avid Royals fans who has attended a ton of games, I call baloney on that. I have been lucky enough to sit behind home plate several times and I can tell you each time it was an amazing baseball experience. And, of course, the entire experience is from behind the protective netting. Before graduating law school and passing the bar, most of my Royals’ games were experienced from the cheap seats, free from any protective netting. I will take the view behind the netting any day.
One can also just look at the economics of ticket pricing. At Kaufmann Stadium, the seats directly behind home plate are some of the most expensive seats in the stadium. They cost upwards $250.00 a ticket, and that is for a regular season game. The same seats for Game 1 of the World Series are currently selling for over $7,000.00 a seat on StubHub! The price of the behind the net tickets alone shows the netting does not negatively affect ticket purchasing.
Since the most expensive seats are behind the nets, it is difficult to conclude that Major League Baseball really believes extending the nets will negatively affect ticket purchasing or fan experience. What then, is responsible for baseball’s resistance to extending the nets? It is hard to say for sure. Tradition probably is a factor. The added cost of installing longer nets might play a roll, although that amount is probably very small compared to a major league team’s overall budget. Perhaps baseball is worried that extending the nets will start baseball down a road where more and more changes will be called for in the name of safety.
As a Missouri attorney who practices injury law, I know that the legal system does not do enough to encourage Major League Baseball to extend the nets. Missouri, and nearly every other state, provide legal immunity to baseball team owners and Major League Baseball for fan injuries that result from flying bats and balls. In the legal world, this immunity is simply known as “the baseball rule.” The baseball rule is nearly as old as the game itself. It is not in a statute passed by legislators. Instead, the baseball rule was created by judges who have long thought that a baseball fan assumes the risk of being injured when they enter the stadium. For a long time, the judges’ reasoning mirrored public sentiment.
As society progresses, technology keeps finding new ways to protect us and our families. These advances have made us as a society less tolerant of needless dangers. Our cars now have airbags, backup cameras, collision sensors, crash avoidance systems, stability control, and anti-lock brakes. When the baseball rule was created, cars did not even have seatbelts.
Our roads and bridges have guardrails that prevent us from rolling down an embankment or careening into a river. Railroad crossings have gates that warn us of approaching trains and prevent us from driving across the tracks when a train is approaching. The list goes on.
These safety improvements are, at least in part, the result of jury verdicts in favor of those who were injured by unsafe cars, roads, and bridges. There is no absolute legal immunity from a lawsuit for the producer of an unsafe car, or the designer of an unsafe roadway. Instead, when someone is injured by a defectively designed car or a dangerously designed roadway, a jury gets to pass judgment. Because of this jury system, the tools and products we use every day are designed to be safe.
Baseball stadiums should not be held to different standard. If Major League Baseball and its owners were subject to the same system as the rest of us, juries, not judges, would get to decide how far the nets should go. The result would likely be a safer ballpark, where parents can take their children to the game and be protected from a possibly life-threatening injury, even in the cheap seats.