Kobritz Column: Is MLB fan safety goal No. 1?
When the lead news story includes a photo of a female fan bleeding profusely from a gash on her head, it's never good for business. That's why MLB sprang into crisis mode immediately after a fan was struck by a shard from a broken bat during a game at Fenway Park on June 5, issuing a statement that said: "Fan safety is our foremost goal." But is it?
Tonya Carpenter was sitting in the second row along the Red Sox' third baseline with her son when a portion of Oakland A's third baseman Brett Lawrie's splintered maple bat went flying into the stands. Although Carpenter's injuries were serious, she is currently on the mend. But who knows if the next victim will be as fortunate?
This isn't the first such ghastly incident and it's unlikely to be the last. Susan Rhodes was attending a game at Dodger Stadium in 2007 when she was severely injured by the fragment of a maple bat that slammed into the left side of her face. Rhodes suffered serious facial injuries that required multiple surgeries, including the installation of a titanium plate and screws to reconstruct her jaw.
The Rhodes incident prompted MLB and the Players' Association to collaborate on a study to determine the cause of the rise in broken bats. The culprit turned out to be maple bats which were increasingly being used as a substitute for the traditional ash bats. Furthermore, it was determined that maple bats are three times more likely to shatter than ash. Shards from a shattered bat can be propelled through the air upwards of 100 feet, far enough to endanger fans sitting in the unprotected box seat sections between home plate and the dugouts.
A simple solution would have been to extend the netting that exists behind home plate to the dugouts and beyond, which as anyone who has attended a MLB game knows, didn't happen. The culprit won't surprise you: Money. However, it's not the cost of the netting - baseball reportedly generated more than $9 billion in revenue last year. The concern is fans that prefer to be close to the action, in order to kibitz with the players and obtain foul balls, will be unwilling to pay the premium prices teams currently charge for seats close to the field if they are required to watch the game through a screen.
Another option would have been to outlaw maple bats, but the union wouldn't give its consent. Players had become enamored of maple bats, in part because Barry Bonds famously used them to set multiple home run records. They have thinner handles than their ash counterparts, which supposedly leads to increased bat speed. Never mind that at least one study has determined that maple bats provide hitters with no advantage over ash.
So in lieu of those options, MLB instituted new design standards for maple bats which were intended to minimize the likelihood of splintering. According to MLB, the adjustments led to a 50 percent reduction in splintered bats. Nonetheless, as Tonya Carpenter can attest, when bats do splinter, the result can be potentially lethal.
MLB's trade off - fan safety for increased revenue - is supported by the courts based on a longstanding legal concept known as "The Baseball Rule." While not adopted in every state, the rule basically says when a fan enters a ballpark they should expect that bats and balls will be flying into the stands. And when that happens, fans assume the risk of injury.
Most teams go to great lengths to advise fans of the risks inherent in attending a game. They print warnings on ticket backs, make PA announcements before and during games, and post signs around the ballpark advising fans to beware of foul balls and flying bats. A sign in Fenway Park not far from where Carpenter was struck read, "Be Alert. Foul Balls and Bats Hurt." And when fans are injured - according to an analysis by Bloomberg News, 1,750 spectators are injured every year by batted balls at Major League games - insurance companies are called in to settle claims or defend the occasional lawsuit.
If fan safety was indeed MLB's foremost goal, they would have installed additional netting long ago. It's clear from that omission that their foremost goal is generating revenue.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.