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WHEN THE use of plastic batting helmets was mandated at all levels of professional baseball in 1971, serious injuries from pitched balls instantly declined. (Earflaps became mandatory for new players in 1983.) But the case of Astros shortstop Dickie Thon, whose brilliant career was derailed in 1984 by a fastball to his left eye from the Mets' Mike Torrez, was a shocking reminder of the harm that a pitched ball could still do. And the danger of a batted ball, especially to the man standing on the mound, never faded.
In 1987 Mariners pitcher Steve Shields, who a decade earlier had suffered a seizure and memory loss after taking a line drive to the face in Class A ball, had his cheek broken by a rip up the middle from the Twins' Kirby Puckett. In '95 Phillies reliever Norm Charlton fielded a comebacker from the Padres' Steve Finley with his face. A year later pitcher Mark Gubicza had his final season with the Royals cut short when his left leg was broken by a line drive hit by the Twins' Paul Molitor. In April '97 Mariners pitcher Josias Manzanillo, not wearing a protective cup, suffered tears in both testicles when the Indians' Manny Ramirez blasted a shot into his groin. The next month Tigers pitcher Willie Blair had his jaw broken when another Indian, Julio Franco, cracked a liner up the middle at 107 mph. Herb Score, then an Indians broadcaster, sat silently in the booth as that nightmare played out. It had been almost 40 years since his own accident. "You never see the ball," Score finally said into the mike. "You have no chance."
Just last Thursday, Giants reliever Joe Martinez took a line drive to the head from Brewers outfielder Mike Cameron and left the field with a bleeding forehead and a swollen right eye. As of Monday he was still in the hospital with a concussion and three hairline fractures in his skull but was expected to make a full recovery.
Surprisingly, no professional player at any level on the U.S. mainland has been killed by a batted ball. Of the 76 deaths caused in that manner—five of which involved batters killed by their own foul tips—all occurred in amateur games and included kids as young as six. In Puerto Rico, meanwhile, a catcher named Raul Cabrera died after he was struck in the throat by a foul tip during an amateur game in the town of Yauco in the early 1970s. Tino Sanchez, father of Rockies minor leaguer Tino Sanchez Jr., was sitting in the stands close to home plate in Ovidio (Millino) Rodriguez Park that day. "He was moving, trying to breathe," Sanchez says of Cabrera. "I thought he was going to be O.K., but the next day they told me the player had passed away. That was the first time that had happened in Puerto Rico."
Of course, coaches, umpires and other on-field personnel also run a risk of injury from batted balls. In 1964, 13-year-old Jerry Highfill died after being hit in the head while retrieving batting-practice balls for the Northwest League's Wenatchee (Wash.) Chiefs. Five years later major league umpire Cal Drummond was hit square on the mask by a foul tip at an Orioles game, injuring his brain, and died a year later from a stroke caused by decreased blood supply to the affected area.
Any career baseball man has a near-miss tale. In April 2002 Jackie Moore, then the manager of the Double A Round Rock (Texas) Express, missed nine games after being laid out by a batting-practice line drive. Moore suffered a broken cheekbone and a concussion and required surgery to repair a detached retina. Three years earlier, then Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer, who as a minor leaguer in 1953 had lain unconscious for 13 days after being beaned, survived a foul ball to the side of his face during a playoff game. The next day he wore an Army helmet.
When questioned on the topic, however, players and coaches say, almost to a man, that they're most concerned about the safety of the fans. Fifty-two spectators are known to have been killed by foul balls since 1887, two in pro games. In 1960 Dominic LaSala, 68, died after he was hit by a foul ball at a minor league game in Miami. Ten years later 14-year-old Alan Fish died five days after getting struck by a Manny Mota foul ball while sitting along the first base line at Dodger Stadium—the only fatality caused by a batted ball in major league history.
"The first time I took my kids to Yankee Stadium, I was a nervous wreck," says Warren Stephens, whose late father, Jack, the billionaire financier and chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, was knocked out by a line drive while playing third base at Columbia (Tenn.) Military Academy in 1941. "We're just past third base but down really low, and I wouldn't take my eyes off of any pitch. I was scared we would get hammered."
But in the last few decades the sport has done little to shield its oft-distracted spectators. Unlike Japanese ballparks, which have protective screens running from behind the plate all the way to the outfield walls, U.S. major and minor league parks don't even have screens that extend as far as the dugouts—thus allowing dozens of foul balls to fly into crowds at every game. There are, increasingly, ballparks like Tampa's George M. Steinbrenner Field, which has signs at lower-level entrances reading, CAUTION: WATCH FOR LIVE BATS AND BALLS LEAVING THE FIELD AT ALL TIMES. But with no standard, pro baseball leaves the decision on such signage, as well as the breadth of netting in each park, to the discretion of each team.
"It's about balancing the need to protect the fans with maintaining the baseball atmosphere we traditionally enjoy," says Dan Halem, senior vice president and general counsel of labor for Major League Baseball and a member of the game's Safety and Health Advisory Committee. "Netting in the ball fields would certainly change the experience of the game." What fan, after all, doesn't like to take home a foul ball? "Fans demand seats with no netting in front," Halem says. "That's the reality."