Column: Does MLB Have A Safety Issue?June 1, 2017

Column: Does MLB Have A Safety Issue?Major League Baseball may have a safety issue but contrary to what you’re probably thinking, this one isn’t due to the action on the field.

Much has been made over the recent spat of fan injuries resulting from foul balls and pieces of shattered bats flying into the stands. The most recent instance to garner headlines occurred on May 24 at Yankee Stadium during a game between the Yankees and Kansas City Royals. The Yankees’ Chris Carter broke his bat and the barrel flew into the stands, injuring a young boy sitting a few rows behind the third base dugout.

Two years ago MLB “urged,” but did not require, clubs to expand ballpark netting down each foul line a minimum of 70 feet from home plate. According to the league, all teams have complied with the recommendation and at least nine have extended the netting at least 20 feet further. The reasons why some teams are reluctant to extend netting beyond 70 feet, range from difficulties related to ballpark construction to fear that fans who want to snag a foul ball, and are willing to risk their safety to do so, will be turned off by the move.

If one lawmaker in New York City has his way, area ballparks may not have a choice in the matter. On May 8, Councilman Rafael L. Espinal Jr. of Brooklyn introduced legislation that would require ballparks with more than 5,000 seats to provide netting from home plate all the way down the left and right field lines to the foul poles. If passed, the bill would apply to the Yankees, Mets and their respective Class A Minor League affiliates on Staten Island and in Brooklyn. Currently, the netting at Yankee Stadium ends on the home plate side of the dugouts, which is why the young fan was injured on May 24.

While momentum seems to be building for additional ballpark netting, there’s another safety issue that may be even more controversial. A number of fans, 25 since 1969 according to an article in USA Today, have fallen to their deaths in MLB stadiums. That’s hardly an epidemic, considering the billions – literally – of fans who have attended MLB games in the past 48 years. But that’s small comfort to those who have lost a loved one as a result of injuries suffered in a ballpark fall.

The most recent death occurred as a result of a fall on May 16 when 42-year-old Rick Garrity tried to climb a railing on an upper deck ramp as he was exiting Wrigley Field in Chicago. Garrity suffered significant injuries in his fall and died the next day.

Garrity’s death and those that proceeded his have fostered a debate on the proper height of railings at MLB stadiums. Code requirements vary from one jurisdiction to another and also depend on the location within the facility. For example, minimum heights generally vary from 26 inches in seating areas to 42 inches in non-seating areas such as ramps. Furthermore, existing stadiums are generally “grandfathered,” meaning if they met the code minimums at the time they were constructed they are under no obligation to comply with higher standards contained in newer codes. Garrity fell over a 36- inch railing, which, although it met code requirements, is less than the 42-inch height recommended by a number of safety experts.

Could a higher railing have prevented Garrity’s death? The Cubs say no, but Garrity’s family and proponents of higher railings argue that it may have deterred him from engaging in risky behavior.
Autopsies determined that most of the victims of ballpark falls were legally intoxicated and others likely committed suicide. Should MLB be responsible for protecting fans from themselves, especially when it interferes with sightlines and inconveniences the majority of the league’s fans?

Where does the responsibility of individuals end and the obligation of institutions like MLB begin?
The reality is safety measures can always be improved, but at what cost?