From his perch in the Atlanta Braves infield on May 20, third baseman Chris Johnson heard what sounded to him like the crack of two bats in quick succession. The first was a line drive off the bat of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez. The second was the ball smashing into the head of an 8-year-old in black shorts and a blue shirt, who was seated in the first row behind first base.
Johnson watched as the boy’s father and a stadium first-aid crew carried him away. After the game, Johnson and catcher Gerald Laird, toting an autographed bat and ball, visited the hospital, where the boy, barely awake, was hooked up to monitors and an intravenous drip.
“It was just a little kid, man,” Johnson said. “It happens every game -- somebody gets hit. Whether it’s a bad one or not, somebody gets hit in the stands every single game.”
Johnson isn’t far off. About 1,750 spectators get hurt each year by batted balls, mostly fouls, at major-league games, or at least twice every three games, a first-of-its-kind analysis by Bloomberg News has found. That’s more often than a batter is hit by a pitch, which happened 1,536 times last season, according to Elias Sports Bureau Inc. The 8-year-old boy was one of four fans injured at the May 20 game, according to a “foul-ball log” and other first-aid records at the Braves’ Turner Field.
Unlike the National Hockey League, which mandated netting behind the goal line and higher Plexiglas above the side boards after a teenage fan was hit by a puck and died in 2002, Major League Baseball has done little to reduce the risk. Its policy is that each team is responsible for spectator safety.
‘Head in Sand’
Baseball “has its head in the sand,” said Robert Gorman, co-author of 2008’s “Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities” since 1862. “If they learn there’s a problem, they’ll have to address it.”
While Major League Baseball is very concerned with fan safety, “there is no epidemic of foul ball damage yet that would warrant some sort of edict or action by the commissioner’s office,” said John McHale, the MLB executive vice president who oversees ballpark security.
The foul ball -- at once both a byproduct of live play and a souvenir -- is the stuff of the baseball fan’s fantasy, and nightmare. To the delight of devotees, about 53,000 of the 73,000 fouls hit each season enter the seats, according to Edwin Comber, creator of foulballz.com, a website that analyzes the most likely location in each ballpark for them to land. Many spectators greet them eagerly, lunging or racing for fouls. Others want to avoid them but can’t react in time.
While the typical injury is minor, like a bruised hand or a bloodied lip, a small number are more serious, and those victims tend to be children. A 6-year-old girl hit by a foul at a Braves game underwent surgery in 2010 after the ball shattered her skull and pushed fragments into her brain. A 7-year-old in Chicago sustained severe brain swelling from a foul liner in 2008. Fouls sent an 18-month-old to a Seattle hospital last season and a 12-year-old in New York to intensive care in 2011.
“I remember eating a pretzel. It was very sunny so it was very hard to see the game,” said Shlomo “Eli” Shalomoff, 15, who was seated in the first row of the outfield stands at the 2011 Mets game when a foul drive fractured his sinuses, requiring surgery. “Next thing you know, split second, I see the ball, and my head flies back. I remember the blood pouring out in a very uncomfortable way. Then I fell on my side. My mom was screaming.”
Foul ball injuries are becoming more severe because new or renovated ballparks feature seats closer to the field, players are stronger and fans are distracted by loud music, scoreboard pyrotechnics and mobile phones, Gorman said. Fans in newer stadiums sit 7 percent closer to fair territory than at older venues, according to Comber.
Judges hearing lawsuits brought by injured spectators are taking note. Appeals courts in Georgia and Idaho this year refused on technical grounds to adopt a long-standing legal principle, known as the “Baseball Rule,” that shields teams and stadium owners from liability as long as a screen protects spectators in the most dangerous seats -- those behind home plate.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez advises his wife to sit behind the home plate netting, or “way up” in the stands, he said. “Sometimes we cringe: somebody just got smoked,” he said. “For the most part, they see it and react and it hits the seats, but when it does hit somebody, it’s not pretty.”
Gorman and other critics advocate safeguards such as expanding the netting behind home plate as far as the dugouts. New York-based Major League Baseball, which operates and sets rules for the American and National leagues, has no plans to mandate such protections during games, preferring to leave decisions to individual teams, McHale said. MLB did require in 2012 that teams install temporary netting during pre-game batting practice, when multiple balls may be in flight and fans pay less attention.
“Stray balls are part of the very fabric of the game,” MLB said in a legal brief filed in January supporting the Braves, who are defendants in a pending lawsuit by the family of the six-year-old girl hurt at a 2010 game. Fans “understand there is a risk of being struck by an errant ball.”
To estimate the number of spectators hurt by foul balls, Bloomberg News obtained data under public records laws from the operators of first-aid booths at Safeco Field in Seattle for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons; at Marlins Park in Miami for a total 85 games in 2012 and 2013; and at Atlanta’s Turner Field for 65 games this season.
Bloomberg also relied on data disclosed by the Boston Red Sox in a 2000 lawsuit and on a study of injuries at Baltimore’s Camden Yards from 1997-99 by Andrew Milsten, a doctor specializing in emergency medicine now at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Besides foul balls, some of the records include injuries caused by home runs, balls hit in batting practice, and a few shattered bats landing in the stands. While fans comprised the vast majority of victims, a few were stadium employees.
Totaling data from these sources, there were about 750 injuries reported to stadium first-aid booths at games attended by approximately 31.6 million spectators. That translates into 23.7 injuries per million attendees -- or an estimated 1,756 injuries last season, when 74 million people went to games.
Five mathematicians and statisticians who reviewed Bloomberg’s approach said it gives a reasonable estimate of injuries, though other variables could affect the tally, such as the number of fans sitting out of harm’s way in the upper deck, or who didn’t report their injuries to first aid.
There’s “a really good mix of ballparks here,” Douglas Drinen, chairman of the math department at Tennessee-based Sewanee: The University of the South, said in an e-mail. “Fenway is super-old, Miami is super-new. The others are in between. Fenway is always sold out, Miami is always empty, the others, again, are in between.”
Stadium authorities said they don’t keep data on foul ball injuries. Spokesmen for the Red Sox, Marlins, Orioles and Mariners declined to comment.
McHale declined to comment on Bloomberg’s analysis and said Major League Baseball hasn’t studied the frequency of foul ball injuries. MLB regularly receives reports about such injuries from a company that handles insurance claims.
Each major-league team is responsible for “for designing adequate backstops, and, depending on local laws and ordinances, displaying warning signs at various places through the ballpark,” McHale said. “Most clubs I believe make PA announcements, announcements on the scoreboard.”
Some teams take other measures. In Atlanta, for instance, ushers in aisles with “higher foul-ball frequencies” are equipped with pagers to alert first-aid crews to stricken spectators, according to Braves spokeswoman Beth Marshall. First-aid staffers rove the aisles between terrace and field levels for faster response.
The Braves “take fan safety very seriously,” the team said in a statement. “We consistently inform all fans of the risks in batted balls and other objects entering the spectator areas.” When accidents occur, “we employ the highest standards of care in our ballpark and have a team of specially trained first-aid staff at every game.”
This year, the Arizona Diamondbacks extended permanent netting along the stands closest to the batter, adding a total of 77 feet so that the 30-foot high backstop behind home plate stretches 150 feet from end-to-end.
Most fans prefer seats without a screen between them and the field, according to MLB’s McHale. Among them are brothers Scott and Adam Clingman, who were seated behind first base at a game in August between the Braves and the Dodgers.
“We pay the extra dollar to be closer,” said Scott Clingman, 22. “You’d be looking at the game through a grid.”
The netting also prevents fans from catching foul balls, which have been sought as keepsakes ever since a spectator at a New York Giants game on May 16, 1921, refused to surrender a ball knocked into Polo Grounds seating. Booted from the ballpark, the fan sued for mental anguish and won, prompting the Giants to change their rules and allow fans to retain balls hit out of play, according to foulballz.com.
Today, many fans bring their gloves to the ballpark in the hope of catching a foul ball.
On a balmy August evening at Atlanta’s Turner Field, Dodgers infielder Dee Gordon stepped in against Braves pitcher Julio Teheran. With their teams scoreless, Gordon lifted a twisting foul ball skyward and backward, into the second section behind home plate. Cody Tucker, a 19-year-old college student from LaGrange, Georgia, ripped off his baseball cap, hoping to corral the approaching foul pop. The ball glanced off Tucker’s thumb and bounced into the hands of a fan seated three rows back.
“When I saw it, I freaked out,” said Tucker. “It was pretty awesome. When do you really get the chance to catch a baseball that came off a major-league ballplayer’s bat?”
One major-league spectator has died from a foul ball, at a 1970 game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium. Two fans have been killed by fouls at minor league or independent stadiums, one in 1960 and one in 2010, according to Gorman.
A foul liner may reach speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, leaving onlookers with barely a second to react, said Gil Fried, a sports management professor at Connecticut’s University of New Haven who has testified as an expert witness in lawsuits against teams.
“I wonder if Major League Baseball is going to wait until someone dies” before enhancing safety measures, Fried said. Indeed, after a first-base coach was killed in 2007 by a foul line drive in a minor-league game, all base coaches were required to wear helmets.
There have been numerous close calls. Seated about 10 rows from the field behind the Chicago Cubs on-deck circle on July 10, 2008, Peter DiAngi was bending forward to retrieve his soda when the batter lashed a scorching drive foul. A second later, DiAngi saw his 7-year-old son Dominic, who’d been standing on his chair, fall limp onto his back, passed out. It was Dominic’s first game.
“He looked like he was dead,” DiAngi said. “The foul ball came directly at him and knocked him up and over the back of the seat.”
Dominic spent a week at the hospital, his brain swelling to the point that doctors considered surgery. Clergy and Cubs players came to visit. Later, Dominic needed to re-learn how to walk and climb stairs because his balance was off kilter. There’s still a small area of his brain that doesn’t get blood, said DiAngi.
“I’m sickened when I go there and see parents with toddlers and sometimes infants in their hands,” said DiAngi, 50, who blames himself for momentarily ignoring the game. “I’ve literally gone up to people at baseball games and said, ‘Can you move seats, can you change, can you be aware of things?’”
Dominic has returned to Wrigley Field to throw out a game’s ceremonial first pitch. Cubs spokesman Julian Green said the team works to “make fans aware of the need to be alert.”
At least three serious injuries have taken place at the Braves’ Turner Field -- where, according to stadium data, 1.6 percent of all balls hit into the stands caused injury this season. Injuries were reported in field-level seats extending to the outfield, in second-tier seats, and in sections where home runs sail.
In 2010, outfielder Melky Cabrera, then on the Braves, rocketed a foul into the seats five rows behind the visitor’s dugout, fracturing the skull of a 6-year-old seated with her siblings and mother. Rushed to the hospital, she began vomiting and lapsed into what court papers called a “seizure-like state.” A surgeon stitched up the lining of her brain while inserting 11 metal plates in her skull. She has lingering medical issues, her lawyer, Mike Moran, said, declining to elaborate.
The girl and her family, who aren’t identified in court papers, sued, claiming the Braves were negligent because the stadium’s protective netting shielded just 2,791 of 49,856 seats and omitted some of the most dangerous areas.
The Braves said that the existing netting -- 30 feet high and 61 feet wide, with additional wings 5 feet high and 36 feet wide -- was sufficient and that the team relies on parents “to take responsibility for where they choose to sit with their children.”
“If the ball is traveling at 80 miles per hour, it is traveling at 117 feet per second,” Moran said in an interview. “If you’re 150 feet from home plate, that only gives you a little over a second to get out of the way.”
Both the family -- through Moran, an attorney at Law & Moran in Atlanta -- and Braves spokeswoman Beth Marshall declined to comment on the case.
Two weeks later, on Sept. 14, 2010, Reva Ezell was sitting in the 12th row behind third base when a foul pop-up plummeted into her face. Ezell, who at 77 remains a diehard Atlanta Braves fan, lost vision in her right eye and will endure her eighth surgery this month.
“I looked up, I could see the lights, I could sort of see the ball, and then it hit me,” said Ezell, who advocates public service announcements during games to warn fans of the risks. “It cracked every bone in my face and flattened my nose. Every doctor that saw me said it was a miracle I was not killed.”
Then, at the Braves-Brewers game this past May 20, four fans were hit by balls. Three escaped with minor injuries, but the 8-year-old boy was felled by the Carlos Gomez liner.
“It’s one of those things that touches your heart, especially when you have kids,” said Laird, the Braves catcher, who has two.
Gomez, also a father of two, visited the boy in the hospital the next day and sent him an autographed bat and helmet. “Just went to see the young fan that was hit by my foul ball last night,” he tweeted. “He was in great spirits and I had a chance to sign the ball.”
The Braves said days later that the child had returned home and was “doing well.” According to Laird, who spoke to the boy’s parents the night he was hurt, the father had briefly glanced away when Gomez pounded the ball. That’s not uncommon. Mets outfielder Eric Campbell said he often sees distracted spectators.
“I hate seeing people in the front rows behind the dugouts, especially with babies or little kids, because you know they’re not paying attention to every single pitch,” Campbell said in August before a game at Citifield against the Braves. “They’re looking at their phones, they’re talking to the person next to them. There’s 250 pitches in a game. To expect them to look at every pitch is probably unreasonable.”
The Braves plan to leave Turner Field and move into a new stadium in Cobb County, Georgia, for the 2017 season. Under the preliminary architect’s plan, seats in the second and third tiers at the new stadium will be closer to the field than they are now, Marshall said. Seats in the field level will be the same distance away.
“Fan safety will remain a top priority for us,” Marshall said.
Few victims of foul ball injuries demand compensation or file lawsuits, said Lowell Gratigny, a former senior vice president at American Specialty Insurance & Risk Services Inc. in Roanoke, Indiana. The company processes injury reports and handles insurance claims on behalf of major-league teams.
Occasionally, for public relations purposes, a team will provide free tickets, pay a few hundred dollars or cover part of an injured fan’s medical costs, Gratigny said. Some teams fight all such claims, and lawsuits have generally been unsuccessful, he said.
When sued, teams say they warn spectators of foul ball risks on ticket stubs, seat backs and stadium signs, and that they’ll move fans to safer locations upon request. They also rely on the “Baseball Rule,” the century-old doctrine protecting them from liability. Several states, including Colorado, New Jersey, Arizona and Illinois, have enshrined the rule in statute, sometimes in response to lobbying by ballpark owners.
Bud Selig, who is retiring this season after two decades as commissioner, said in 2008 that Major League Baseball would discuss whether fans are at risk from batted balls. Since then, while MLB has reviewed the issue at annual meetings, it has continued to defer to the teams.
Three years ago, Selig wrote a letter to Reva Ezell, thanking her for her commitment to the game even after losing part of her vision to a foul ball.
He wrote, “Some individuals would never have step [sic] foot inside a ballpark again, but the true fan finds a way to be there -- albeit in a safer location.”
(An earlier version of this story corrected Edwin Comber’s first name.)