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Click here for more on this story

Posted: Tuesday June 06, 2000 05:53 PM

Good Fences, Bad Fans?  

Barriers to protect baseball crowds might create worse problems

By Ian Thomsen

Sports Illustrated

A nine-year-old boy underwent emergency surgery on May 30, the day after his skull was fractured by a wicked foul ball at Comerica Park in Detroit. While Joey Siket remained hospitalized on Monday in serious but stable condition, his parents hired a lawyer who has demanded that the Tigers surround their field with a three-foot-high Plexiglas wall. "They laughed at the idea," said James Elliott, the Sikets' attorney, who in the past two years has filed two other lawsuits against the Tigers on behalf of fans injured by flying objects. "It's now evident to me that the Detroit Tigers could care less, and even a death in their stands will not alter their conduct toward the unsafe conditions."

For more than a century anyone with a clue has understood that the closer you sit to home plate, the greater the risk. Joey was seated in the front row beside the visitors' dugout -- a location that worried his mother, Debbie. "I didn't even want him to go to the game, because I've read about this happening before," Debbie told The Detroit News. She and her husband are suing, in effect, to hold others responsible for their decision to let Joey sit within 40 yards of the batters.

The real danger is that the Tigers and other clubs might be bullied into submission. At first glance it might seem that the Plexiglas walls separating fans from the field would serve not only to protect spectators from line drives but also to soothe concerns about security that escalated last month when 19 Dodgers were suspended and fined after a brawl in the stands at Wrigley Field. However, erecting such barriers would be a decision the Tigers, and baseball, would long regret. Walls bring out worse behavior in the fans. European soccer officials realized as much after they erected fencing around their fields decades ago -- and they at least had good reason to build the barriers, given the pitch invasions that plagued the sport. For the last decade FIFA, soccer's international governing body, has been trying to bring the fences down. The experience has been that, says FIFA president Sepp Blatter, "if you put people in cages, they behave like animals."

Once baseball builds walls, it's going to have a hell of a time removing them. In the meantime the obstructions would only incite the more hostile elements of the crowd. More lawsuits for everybody. The national pastime, indeed.

Issue date: June 12, 2000

For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, June 7. Click here to subscribe to SI.

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