Baseball Stadium Safety, Inning 2: Eyes on the Ball

Baseball Stadium Safety, Inning 2: Eyes on the Ball

In the wake of the tragic death of a fan in Atlanta, it would be much more constructive to apply statistical analysis to basic safety questions than to continuing ranting about either the decline of personal responsibility or the intolerable danger of attending live events.

Steven A. Adelman

The problem with working in sports and entertainment is that it’s sometimes hard to enjoy the event without some risk management or legal issue fighting for attention. Here are the current distractions.

In July, the hot question regarded netting behind home plate and whether baseball fans need more protection from balls or bats entering the stands. Last week, after a fan fell to his death at Turner Field in Atlanta, the media desperately needed to know whether ballpark railings are high enough. I will reiterate what I wrote here two months ago: it would be much more constructive to apply statistical analysis to these basic safety questions than to continuing ranting about either the decline of personal responsibility or the intolerable danger of attending live events.

Let’s start with Major League Baseball attendance. Through the same number of home games as last season, Baseball Reference says 62,880,754 people have attended games in 2015, about 750,000 more people than 2014, heading towards a season total of roughly 75 million people. That’s a large number, right?

Compare that figure to the number of fans – i.e., one – who have fallen over railings at the ballpark, the issue for which I was interviewed on the NBC Nightly News and Today show, along with several media outlets in Atlanta.

That is not to minimize the tragic death of a 60-year-old Braves fan who apparently stood to boo Alex Rodriguez so emphatically that he toppled over a 400 level railing from his second-row seat. My intention is to give this incident some much-needed perspective. Since you work in this industry, I bet you can name the previous accidental fall over a railing. How about the one before that? Not so easy, is it? To me, that is a clue that the hype exceeds the threat.

We are not, however, at the end of the discussion. As always, the venue’s legal duty is to behave reasonably under the circumstances. The railing height requirements of 26” in front of seats and 42” at the bottom of down aisle are contained in the International Building Code, with which every stadium complies. That seems like a solid start, but I believe that Code compliance is not a proxy for reasonableness, particularly since those height standards were set in the 1927 Building Exits Code and never changed since then. Do you look and act the same as your grandparents when they were your age? I don’t. It seems to me that railing heights should reflect modern realities, which include average patron height, weight, and the way fans generally behave at the ballpark. The last time a fan fell over a railing, ballparks around baseball had engineers reviewing their railing heights and raising them in some instances. I would take this as another opportunity to revisit that issue. I would not, however, use last week’s incident in Atlanta to call for wholesale changes.

This brings us back to netting near home plate. I’m still on the fence about that one (so to speak). The Philadelphia Phillies were the first club to announce that they will add netting, although even they are waiting for MLB to announce a policy before they change anything. And there have been further instances of people getting hurt trying to catch foul balls, just as there have been many fans who caught balls without incident. Try searching “nice catch by [your team’s name] fan” and see what you get. Here is what I found for the Boston Red Sox.

When I am interviewed on the “WGN Plus Legal Face-Off” show about ballpark safety this week, I will try to cut through the bluster with some old fashioned reason. Failing that, I plan to shout over the dueling hosts.

We are all lucky to make our living dealing with the business and operational issues of live events. I think I have the coolest job of all my friends, and I bet you do too. If the current mishegas gets you down, just keep your eye on the ball.

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