SI Vault
Tom Verducci
April 01, 2002
With new ballparks putting spectators closer than ever to the action, more fans are getting in harm's way
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April 01, 2002

Safety Squeeze

With new ballparks putting spectators closer than ever to the action, more fans are getting in harm's way

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The best seats are the worst. A spot behind or next to a dugout gives a baseball fan the opportunity to see a ballplayer sweat, hear what little infield chatter remains in the game and dodge potentially lethal projectiles whizzing at more than 100 mph. Unprotected by netting, such seats are among the most dangerous in sports.

Given the proximity of the seats and the potential harm inherent in a speeding baseball, it's amazing that the major leagues have suffered only one fan fatality caused by a batted ball. (In 1970 a 14-year-old boy died after being struck in the head by a foul ball off the bat of Manny Mota of the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

The ballpark building boom of the past decade has brought fans closer to the action. That also means they are closer to being in harm's way. Spectators sitting behind home plate are protected by netting; those near the dugouts get no such protection, though their seats are not much farther from the plate. Dangerously broken and inadvertently thrown bats also tend to alight in that area. It is no coincidence that virtually every major league team puts its players' family section directly behind home plate, seats that are protected by the backstop.

For instance, no more dangerous seats exist than the ones behind and near the third base dugout when two righthanded power pitchers are starting. The lineups are usually loaded with lefthanded hitters who are likely to swing late at fastballs. whistling foul balls into the stands. Fans in those danger zones need to pay attention to each pitch as closely as the third baseman does.

Such seats are particularly dangerous for parents with infants (babies should not even be allowed there), children (how many elementary school kids are riveted to each pitch for a three-hour game?) and the elderly (slowed reaction time makes them vulnerable). Children and seniors are an important part of minor league and spring training games, typically held in small ballparks in which even the premium seats are affordable. The risk, however, is enormous for even the most athletic onlookers. In 1992 California Angels pitcher Matt Keough was hit in the right temple and nearly killed by a line drive while seated in the dugout of Scottsdale Stadium in Arizona. A fence was installed in front of the dugout for the safety of the players and staff.

Batting practice, with many fans hardly paying mind to the humdrum workouts, can be even more dangerous than games. Though a batting cage prevents harm to fans seated near the dugouts, people sitting along the foul lines behind first and third base routinely see balls buzzing past their nachos. Years ago in Vero Beach, Fla., spring home to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the shattering of an elderly woman's jaw by a foul ball could be heard at the batting cage; it sounded as if someone had stepped on an unopened bag of potato chips.

Ballparks typically post signs alerting fans to the danger of foul balls. But they also present a sensory overload of distractions, from vendors hawking food to scoreboards full of information and video diversions. It's all done in the name of harmless fun—until that one foul ball comes screaming at the wrong time and in the wrong place.