Hard Bounces

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
In the early days of baseball, there was no netting anywhere. The seating behind home plate became known as the "slaughter pen" due to the number of fan injuries from foul balls. It wasn’t until 1879 that the Providence Grays became the first professional team to install netting behind home plate. Other teams, from the pros to Little Leagues, eventually followed suit and put up some sort of protection.

Still, this didn’t stop baseball from becoming the most dangerous sport to watch, even more so than ice hockey, in large part because of baseball’s ubiquity. Since the mid-nineteenth century, about 120 spectators at baseball games of all kinds have been killed by foul balls. A ten-year-old boy at an amateur game in a Boston park in 1897. A thirteen-year-old boy at a pickup game at a dump in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1901. A twelve-year-old boy at a game in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, in 1904. A thirty-four-year-old fan at a Knights of Columbus and Philadelphia Giants game in New Jersey in 1925. A fourteen-year-old boy at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 1970. A thirty-nine-year-old mother of two at a San Angelo (Texas) Colts game in 2010. An East Carolina University fan in 2012.

- "Foul Territory",

With the recent All-Star Game in the books, and folks around the area basking in significant amounts of positive press surrounding the event, the weather, and the venue, Target Field, it's perhaps a little sobering to note that one errant foul ball during tomorrow's game against the Rays could change all that.

How? Well, it's an interesting story, and not one baseball likes to talk about. Like a lot of things about baseball, it involves a patchwork of traditions and assumptions that never really got decided by any one person but were assumed for the "good of the game" (though it would be more accurate to call it the "good of the owners").

As noted above in that article, about 120 people not actually participating in a game have been killed by foul balls -- one every couple of years, though in honesty deaths were more frequent before ballparks, including little league parks, were built with screening/netting around the backstop. But the risk of death is just part of the equation -- the same article notes that, depending on the source of the data (and it's very hard to get ahold of data sources), roughly 40 or more people every year are injured by foul balls each season. This isn't 40 or more total across all of MLB -- this is 40 or more people in each stadium. If you go to a half-dozen or more games per year, you've doubtless seen more than one person escorted to the first aid station after being plunked with a hard foul into the third or first base bleacher seats.

But why? Depends on whether you're asking 'why does this happen' or 'why doesn't anybody do anything about it'.

Why it happens is, again, covered in that article -- even at a sparsely-attended game, the seats behind the dugouts are popular and usually have plenty of fans, largely because of the closeness to the action on the field. But the closer the seats are to the action, the less time someone sitting in those seats has to react to a sharp foul ball. Take into account that pitchers throw harder and batters are stronger and more athletic than they've been at almost any time in baseball history, and you can see that the 'slaughter pen' probably should be extended to the space down the lines to the area over the dugouts. (It's interesting to note, if you ever go to Seifert Field, the protective netting there extends all the way to the ends of the dugouts, suggesting that the designers of the ballpark recognized this.)

Why doesn't anybody do anything about it? Because the people with the ability to do something about it don't really have any incentive, largely due to a nebulous thing called the 'baseball rule'. The 'baseball rule' isn't a law or statute; it isn't encoded in legislation at all. It's a clarification of the common law 'duty of care'. The duty of care is why, if you invite people over to your house and one of them injures herself falling through the rotted timbers of your aging front porch, she can sue you -- when you invite people over, you owe them a duty of care that your house is safe. (This is also the unspoken assumption behind the 'burglar sues school district for faulty ceiling' stories that seem so counter-intuitive -- it's not that the school owed the burglar a safe roof to crawl on, it's that, if the burglar could get there, so could others who might have a legitimate reason to, such as maintenance workers, and the school was clearly violating its duty of care to them as demonstrated by what happened to the burglar.)

However, judicial decisions in numerous lawsuits related to injuries in baseball stadiums have established that, if a stadium owner takes 'reasonable precautions' to both protect against injuries and warn people of the risks of injuries, then the liability of the stadium owner is reduced in the event of an injury. Ironically, as the years have passed and few MLB owners actually own the stadiums they play in, the courts have slowly modified the 'reduced liability' in the 'baseball rule' to be interpreted as 'zero liability', and Minnesota is no exception.

Just as ironically, the most significant legal precedent for the 'baseball rule' in Minnesota has nothing to do with the Twins -- it's a 2003 decision by the Minnesota State Court of Appeals in the case of Alwin vs. St. Paul Saints Club, Inc. (scroll down to Spectator Injury Risks for the details) This decision includes the now-famous phrase "risks inherent to the game of baseball" which is used on the backs of tickets and in public address announcements to effectively immunize professional baseball clubs from liability for injuries.

Let's not forget that the dugout seats sell for good money, and if the stadium commission or the Twins themselves installed netting or screens, the reduced visibility would certainly lower the perceived value of the seats, much more than the increased safety. (This is also almost certainly why there isn't similar resistance to putting screens at Siefert or in Little League parks, where the facility owners are less profit-minded.)

Now I don't want to wholly demonize the Twins organization here -- they do make an effort to inform people of the risks of being hit with a batted ball. As noted, there's a notice on every ticket, and, at the Metrodome at least, there was a PA announcement before every game warning fans of the dangers. There are warnings on the Twins website, even for the spring training page. But the reality is that these warnings aren't really effective, just as similar warnings in 19th century worksites didn't prevent significant numbers of major injuries to workers on the powerful machines of the day -- what finally lowered the rate of serious injury was when government started holding the owners of the machines liable for the injuries to their workers. Once it was a question of the pocketbook, the cheap and ineffective warnings combined with blaming the workers ended and owners invested in safer machinery and better training to actively reduce worker injuries, because in the long run, that was cheaper than paying for the injured workers' treatment.

It's also interesting to note that sometimes the courts ignore the 'baseball rule' -- it's rare, and usually involves injury to a child where the court finds that the parent did his or her best to uphold her duty to protect and care for their children. But, as noted at this site, largely this just complicates the issue and makes it less clear when or to what degree the 'baseball rule' applies and how much liability is negated by its application.

Perhaps it's time to end the 'baseball rule' and make baseball clubs liable for the injuries done to their fans. Based on the last serious injury I can find in the local media, it's just about time for another one anyway.

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