Players, officials push for better baseball fan protection

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — After almost 20 years, the image still rattles around in Tigers manager Brad Ausmus' head. The memory elicits a grimace, much as if it happened a week ago instead of the mid-1990s when Ausmus was a player.

He hit a foul ball that went sharply into the stands, injuring a fan.

What made it worse: The fan was a child.

"He had to be in an induced coma for three days," Ausmus said. "I checked on him and actually sent him something. That was (a while ago), so he's probably almost 30 years old now."

It's a chilling reminder of the dangers fans face at a baseball game.

The issue of fan safety again was brought to the forefront this month when Tonya Carpenter was struck in the head by the barrel of a broken bat during a game June 5 at Fenway Park.

Carpenter was bloodied and suffered life-threatening injuries, but was transferred from the hospital last week to a rehabilitation facility. She was sitting behind the third base dugout, which doesn't have protective netting to prevent foul balls and bats from entering the stands, like the area directly surrounding home plate does.

At Comerica Park, there hasn't been a similar incident, but second baseman Ian Kinsler said players have pushed to get the protective netting extended along the first- and third-base lines to the length of each dugout, where many foul balls are hit at such high speeds fans have little time to react.

"It's something we talked about with the players association and MLB," Kinsler said. "Hopefully, that moves it along a little bit faster and we can get some fan protection."

Commissioner Rob Manfred indicated this week the incident has spurred baseball officials to expedite their investigation into ways to enhance fan safety at its parks.

"Since that time, we have been focused on a variety of remedies that could be used to address this problem," Manfred said Tuesday. "They include things like additional bat regulations, wrapping of bats and increased netting. It's important as we move forward with this that we keep all of the available options on the table and make the best decision to make sure our fans are as safe as possible."

Manfred said there is no timetable for finalizing a plan, but officials are looking at a long-term solution instead of a reactionary one.

Warning signs, messages

The Tigers have a staff of paramedics on each level at Comerica Park, and two doctors on standby during each game. Although team officials don't track specific injuries, incident reports are created for each fan treated by the medical staff — from dehydration to headaches to sun exposure.

Tigers officials estimate there are about 250 total pitches per game — and about 30-35 are foul balls.

Last season, there were 102 incident reports in 81 games that resulted from foul balls and bats going into the stands. That number was up from 88 in 2013.

Comerica Park has signs posted near seating areas, and officials run audio and video messages warning fans about the dangers of balls and bats leaving the field during play.

Beyond that, fans have an expectation there could be an incident.

"I've been coming to the ballgames so long that I know you have to watch out; something can happen," said Abby Smith, 31. "When you come to a game, you never know what's going to happen. You should make an effort to watch if you're that low, but things happen."

In the "hot spots" behind dugouts and along the first- and third-base lines, there's an increased awareness, and some fans take safety precautions to ensure they don't have any issues.

For Holly's Gordon Marshall, 43, it means a specific seating pattern when he takes his kids, ages 12, 10 and 7, to a game.

"I usually sit in front of them, between them and the batter so that I can lean in if I need to," he said. "I expect it; if I'm going to sit down there, I expect it, so I would prepare for it. I would protect my kids and bring a glove. Part of the game is that the foul balls come in the stands."

But some fans don't want to sacrifice the overall experience in the name of safety, saying the extended netting would encroach on the allure of being close to the action. They point to the opportunity to catch a foul ball and to be near players on the field as one of the attractions of sitting close.

The same was true in the NHL before the death of teenager Brittanie Cecil after being hit by a deflected puck that flew into the stands and struck her in the head. That spurred NHL officials to install protective netting around all of the league's arenas in 2002.

"The bat thing is a little bit of a freak accident, but (foul) baseballs hurt as well," Kinsler said. "It's a shame that it takes something like that to happen for people to make an adjustment."

'Pay attention'

Even while games are going on, players have an idea of the dangers of batted balls and bats going into the stands and causing injuries. Hitters can be affected most, feeling they are the cause of the incident.

Such is the case for Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez, who has hit plenty of foul balls into the stands, but doesn't wait to see where they land, fearing the worst.

"When I hit it, I don't even look because I don't want to know," he said. "As soon as I hit it, I just turn away. If I hear the fans say, 'Ooh!' I don't want to look because it gets in your head. It's one of those things that's part of baseball. Any time my family ever sits there, I get worried about it. I always tell them that you have to stop having fun while the game is being played and you have to pay attention."

Several other Tigers players have had their own brushes with the dangers they see inherent in the game, and see the need for baseball officials to enact more stringent safety measures and for fans to be more aware of their surroundings when they're at a game.

'You always feel bad'

"It's really scary," Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander said. "You see it at least once every couple games, with a hard line drive or something like that. You always feel bad and almost inevitably, it's a little kid, because they're the ones not paying attention."

Manfred said there has been some resistance from fans to the idea of putting up more protective netting, but players have seen some of the dangers.

"This game's been around a long time and the experience of going to a baseball game is like no other," Tigers pitcher Joba Chamberlain said. "I don't want to take away from that experience, but I also want to protect the fans and family and kids out there so they can continue to experience it.

"A month ago, we had two in one inning. It happens but I don't want to change the integrity for the fans of watching the game. But I want to see if there's something we can do to make things safer."