“The Baseball Rule” Going, Going, Gone?

Baseball Player Image“The pitcher gets the sign. He comes set on the mound. He checks the runner and here comes the 3-1 delivery. Whoa! Casey scorches a line drive that just misses the cameraman down the right field line. Let’s hope no one was injured!” Does this sound familiar? A class action lawsuit has been filed in Oakland, California, claiming that Major League Baseball parks need to do more to protect fans. MLB must move beyond hoping their fans are okay. According to Bloomberg News, approximately 1,750 fans are hurt each year with a batted ball. This is more times than a player is hit by a pitch! There have been numerous fans lately being carried out of baseball parks on stretchers or needing emergency care after being hit by a foul ball or broken bat.

I have been a baseball fan my entire life. When most kids were going to Disney World, my parents took me to both minor and major league ballparks across the nation. I loved to go down to the first row by the dugout and get autographs and pictures of my favorite players. I’m a traditionalist at heart. I love baseball history and the old ballparks. I love reading stories about the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field, and “Dem bums.” Those ballparks were built in the communities that loved and supported them. I was thrilled when the multi-purpose stadiums with artificial turf were replaced by new ballparks that had all the amenities of a new park but the character of the old ballparks. I also loved the fact that I was closer to the action.

Now as an adult I’m a protective father first and baseball enthusiast second. I believe it’s true that pitchers throw harder, bats are made lighter and splinter and break more often, jumbotrons flash huge images of replays, pictures, stats, and scores. T-shirts are launched by cannons and slingshots into the stands by mascots. Oh, don’t forget about having to stand up during every other inning for “that guy” that has to go pee. The next-half inning it’s his buddy’s turn. Then he comes back and everyone stands to let him return to his seat. Then this cycle continues. This all adds up to distractions and distractions may lead to serious injury. Many of these injuries to fans could be avoided or reduced by adding more protective netting not just behind home plate but down the lines as well.

I was fortunate enough to have worked with Ed Edmonds at the Kresge Law Library. Ed is a Notre Dame Law School Professor who is an expert in antitrust and labor issues in the game of baseball. Currently, Ed is co-authoring a book about the MLB and the law. Ed recently wrote an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. I urge you to follow the link below and read his opinion on this topic. He explains what is known as the “Baseball Rule.” Essentially, baseball stadiums historically have only been mandated to protect the area around home plate or people who request protection and that team owners cannot be liable for negligence when a fan is injured from foul balls and broken or thrown bats. In law this is the assumption of risk doctrine. Fans know the risks, don’t they? We’ve all read the warning about the risks on our ticket stub right? So when a rocket line drive hits a fan in the head so hard that the swelling is larger than the ball, they should have somehow known better correct? Well, several states and jurisdictions are starting to reconsider “The Baseball Rule.” I believe safer ballparks are good for the players, the fans, and ultimately in the best interest of baseball.

Here’s another reason for protective netting down the lines. I think it would help umpires with fan interference calls. Wouldn’t there be less fan interference if they couldn’t reach through the netting? Would Moises Alou have caught that ball in 2003 and sent the Cubs to the World Series if there had been a net? Would the Cub fan, let’s call him Steve, have tried to catch that foul ball? Most likely the ball would have gone on one side of the net or the other. Here was a Cub fan who took all kinds of abuse for simply trying to catch a game ball from a championship game of his favorite team. A net might have made that issue moot.
Finally, while I argue for more safety to protect fans, I also believe that new laws must use common sense. The current law states that the team should not be held liable for “those risks that the home team is powerless to alleviate without fundamentally altering the game or spectator’s enjoyment of it.” For example, a Kansas City Royals fan was hit by a foil wrapped hotdog thrown by the team’s mascot. The fan needed two eye surgeries and the Missouri Supreme Court said that a thrown hotdog was not an “inherent risk” of the game. Therefore, the fan could not be barred from seeking recovery. The Royals mascot Sluggerr must use reasonable care when throwing his hotdogs or he could be held liable for damages. Are you serious? Yep, read Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp., 437 S.W.3d 184, 194 (Mo. 2014). So the team could be found negligent if a peanut vendor tosses a bag of peanuts to a fan and it hits him in the eye? Players should still be able to toss balls into the stands between half-innings. Mascots should still launch T-shirts or 4 ounce hot dogs into the crowd. The Sausage Races in Milwaukee make the game an experience and a lot of fun. Taking away these things would alter the “spectator’s enjoyment.” Freak accidents may occur like the hot dog incident in K.C. but I don’t feel the home team is liable for damages caused by making the experience more fun.

However, teams do need to do more to protect these fans from serious and even life-threatening injuries by adding netting that doesn’t distract the view. Some teams such as the Phillies are already planning changes (see link below). So if you’re going to a game soon try to pay close attention and sit where the risk of line drives is minimal. I would even take a glove. Who knows, you just might snag a foil wrapped hotdog if you’re willing to assume that “risk”!

The following reference articles were used the writing of this post:

Ed Edmonds Chicago Tribune Article from August 24, 2015:
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-baseball-fans-injuries-mlb-bat-line-drive-ball-perspec-0825-jm-20150824-story.html

Phillies Protective NettingArticle:

http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/story/mlb-protective-netting-extend-fan-safety-broken-bats-foul-balls-philadelphia-phillies-082615

Oakland Lawsuit Article:
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/14/sports/baseball/lawsuit-seeks-better-protection-for-fans-from-foul-balls-and-broken-bats.html?_r=o

Bloomberg Hit Fan Statistics:
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-09-09/baseball-caught-looking-as-fouls-injure-1750-fans-a-year

The K.C. Hot Dog Case:
http://www.leagle.com/decision/In%20MOCO%2020140624287/COOMER%20v.%20KANSAS%20CITY%20ROYALS%20BASEBALL%20CORP

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About John W. Davis III

I am passionate about legal research, legal librarianship and scholarship, Intellectual Property, U.S. History, fine art, reading, and most sports. I have over 9 years of research and library experience and a unique history that has taken me from running my own fine art business to meeting Associate Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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This entry was posted on September 15, 2015 by in History and tagged , , , .

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