Foul-ball jeopardy an issue still in play for MLB

With strikeouts on the rise, base hits on the wane and pitchers and catchers reporting next week, Major League Baseball girds for another battle with declining attendance and viewership.

The loss of one longtime fan exposed another millstone around the neck of today’s game.

It was revealed over this winter that a 79-year-old woman died last August after being hit in the head with a foul ball in the ninth inning of a game at Dodger Stadium.

She sat in the loge section, just above the area protected by netting, and after vomiting in the ambulance en route to the hospital, never regained consciousness.

The fatality was a cruel irony, occurring in the same season when all major league clubs had extended the netting behind home plate to cover the area to the far side of the dugout.

That move was inspired by an incident at Yankee Stadium in 2017, when a young girl, sitting several rows back behind the third base dugout, was struck in the face with a 100 mph line drive foul ball.

MLB isn’t interested in amplifying these types of stories, for obvious reasons, but suffice to say no stadium is exempt from foul ball calamity. This includes Miller Park, where of a couple of similar accidents have taken place.

A woman was hit by a foul ball line drive during batting practice in a 2014 Brewers game against Colorado, taking the blast in her ear and suffering nerve damage.

In the ninth inning of a 2015 game against Atlanta, a woman took a line shot that fractured her forehead and left her with $200,000 worth of hospital bills not covered by her insurance.

The Braves had a runner on first base at the time, Andrelton Simmons, who was close to the stands and saw the bloodied woman escorted out. Simmons said he wished the net was bigger, and that he wouldn’t sit that close in a Major League game.

As for that bigger-net alternative, a model is in place in Japan, where protective netting behind the plate extends to the entire area from foul pole to pole. A few unobstructed-view seats are marketed as “excite” seats, each of which is equipped with a baseball glove and batting helmet for the fan’s protection.

Faced with any hint of litigation, Major League Baseball points to the warning printed on the back of each ticket advising the ticket holder that the league isn’t legally responsible for any injury suffered at their place. The message is to be on guard for those 100 mph foul balls and watch for deflections, and you should be fine.

Good luck to any private citizen seeking a ruling against a major corporation like MLB, because courts typically regard a foul ball injury as a fluke.

On average, there are 30 foul balls hit in every game in the majors. Multiply that by the number of games and there are almost 73,000 foul balls hit every year, begging the question of at what point along the way to 73,000 is a foul ball no longer considered a fluke.

Not all 73,000 are screaming liners into the stands, of course, but with pitchers routinely throwing upwards of 95 mph, there are numerous wayward and potentially lethal missiles to be ducked in every game.

Ultimately, it’s up to fans at a baseball game whether they want to sit close to the action and risk injury, in the same vein that it’s up to Formula 1 fans in Monte Carlo who sit close to the road — the phrase “excite” seats doesn’t do justice to this level of masochism — as the cars race past.

The Los Angeles woman’s death is the second fatality from a foul ball in a major league game, with the other being a 16-year-old boy in 1970, also at a Dodgers game.

It’s a sobering caveat emptor to baseball fans, and a heads-up to MLB that their fine-print “heads-up” isn’t enough.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@newmedia-wi.com.