Foul Territory

How long do you have to react when a line drive is hit into the stands? Less time than it takes to yell “foul.”

 On May 20, a young boy was struck in the head by a line drive foul ball during a Braves–Brewers game. The incident stirred painful memories for Fred Fletcher, whose daughter was struck at a game in 2010.
AP Photo/Todd Kirkland

Fred Fletcher doesn’t watch baseball anymore, but one night in May, he got a text from a friend: Something had happened at that evening’s Braves game. An eight-year-old boy had been hit in the head by a line drive foul off the bat of Milwaukee Brewer Carlos Gomez during the seventh inning. In bed, with the volume on low so he wouldn’t wake his wife, Fletcher watched the 11 o’clock news and then turned on a replay of the game. He didn’t see the boy, but when the ball rocketed into the stands behind the first-base dugout and the batter dropped to a knee in prayer, Fletcher began to weep.

He replayed those few seconds over and over on the television and in his head. By the time he fell into a fitful sleep at three in the morning, his sadness and grief had turned into an anger so intense he would find it hard, even weeks later, to fully articulate it.

Fletcher is married and has three daughters. The two youngest are twins. Not quite four years ago, when the twins were six, the family went to see the Braves play the Mets at Turner Field. They sat in row ten of section 116L, just behind the visitors’ dugout along the third-base line. The view from these seats is astounding. When the opposing pitcher trots back to the dugout after a half inning, you’re close enough to see if he shaved that morning. Expletives from the players often make their way to these seats. So do foul balls.

The evening of August 30, 2010, was postcard-perfect. Eighty-one degrees. Partly cloudy. A light breeze. My husband and I were there—sitting, as chance would have it, ten rows behind the Fletchers with our son, just seven months old at the time. My husband (who is also the editor of this magazine) held him up for a picture while the Mets’ David Wright readied his bat at the plate.

By the top of the fourth inning, the Fletcher girls had finished their cotton candy. It was a school night, so Fletcher was thinking they should leave soon.

Fred Fletcher
Photograph by John E. McDonald

Baseball is many things: an institution, a tradition, an obsession. It is also achingly boring to watch. Last year, the Wall Street Journal looked at three Major League Baseball games and timed how much real activity occurred in each. The findings? Although a typical baseball game stretches past three hours, the actual action in a game—moments like hits and runs and fielding—totals just eighteen minutes. And so, over the endless minutes of nothing, fans are fed distractions: food and beer, of course, but also absurd chants, mascot foot races, the wave, the Jumbotron. By the time Melky Cabrera came to bat in the bottom of the fourth that night, the Fletchers had already seen themselves on the seven-story screen three times.

Today Cabrera plays for the Toronto Blue Jays, but four seasons ago he was a Brave. The team roster listed him as six feet, 210 pounds. A switch-hitter, he was batting left-handed against right-handed reliever Elmer Dessens from the Mets. On the first pitch to Cabrera, Dessens threw an 88-mile-per-hour fastball on the inside part of the plate.

Cabrera’s swing, so quick and effortless as to seem almost an afterthought, connected solid but late. On the telecast, the ball disappears from the screen as if it were never there.

How fast was it going? We don’t know for sure, but a line drive from a major league batter can easily exceed 100 miles per hour. We know some other things. We know that a baseball weighs five ounces. We know that force equals mass times acceleration. We know that Fred Fletcher’s six-year-old daughter, whom he will identify only as “A,” was sitting precisely 144 feet from home plate. The laces on her sneakers were knotted in neat bows. And she—well, not just she, but everyone around her—had less than one second to react to Cabrera’s line drive.

Less than one second.

If price connotes quality, then the best seats at Turner Field are in the SunTrust Club, a luxury section that has its own VIP entrance, full bar, chef stations, and the closest seats to home plate. They start at the inside edge of the visitors’ dugout and circle around to the start of the Braves’ dugout. Behind the SunTrust seats, occupying a narrower section, are the Henry Aaron seats, protected by a net. Similar setups can be found at virtually every other major (and minor) league park in America, simply because the spectators behind home plate are believed to be the most exposed to errant bats and balls.

The next best seats at Turner Field would be in sections like 116L, behind the dugouts, where the Fletcher family sat that night. You might argue these seats are even better than the ones behind home plate because there’s no netting between you and the action.

In the early days of baseball, there was no netting anywhere. The seating behind home plate became known as the “slaughter pen” due to the number of fan injuries from foul balls. It wasn’t until 1879 that the Providence Grays became the first professional team to install netting behind home plate. Other teams, from the pros to Little Leagues, eventually followed suit and put up some sort of protection.

Still, this didn’t stop baseball from becoming the most dangerous sport to watch, even more so than ice hockey, in large part because of baseball’s ubiquity. Since the mid-nineteenth century, about 120 spectators at baseball games of all kinds have been killed by foul balls. A ten-year-old boy at an amateur game in a Boston park in 1897. A thirteen-year-old boy at a pickup game at a dump in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1901. A twelve-year-old boy at a game in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, in 1904. A thirty-four-year-old fan at a Knights of Columbus and Philadelphia Giants game in New Jersey in 1925. A fourteen-year-old boy at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 1970. A thirty-nine-year-old mother of two at a San Angelo (Texas) Colts game in 2010. An East Carolina University fan in 2012.

These examples come from Robert M. Gorman, an author and retired reference librarian at Winthrop University in South Carolina, who began studying ballpark fatalities years ago after learning that a player with his family name died in 1953 of a heart attack during a game. Gorman’s research—tracking game-time fatalities and injuries—has made him an authority on one of baseball’s most macabre statistics.

At a typical major league game, between thirty-five and forty batted balls fly into the stands. For many fans, this is as much a part of the experience as beer and peanuts. They bring their weathered gloves and wait for a ball to loop lazily in the sky before plummeting toward the seats.

Line drive foul balls are different. In humans, there is no such thing as an “instant” response; what we see must be interpreted by the brain, and that process can take a tenth of a second. If a ball is traveling at 100 miles per hour, it will have already covered a dozen feet before you even realize it’s headed toward you. That, of course, assumes you’re actually paying attention. Even professional baseball players, paid millions of dollars for their reflexes and hand-eye coordination, get clocked once in a while. (And they have a healthy fear; in June, San Diego Padre Alex Torres became the first pitcher to wear an MLB-approved padded helmet, a year after a former teammate was struck on the mound.)

What chance do fans have when some are mere feet from the field of play? What if some of those fans are children?

After the game in May when the little boy was hit in the head, Braves’ pitcher Julio Teheran told a reporter that “no one had a chance to get out of the way.” (The Associated Press reported that the boy was released from the hospital the next day.) And Gomez, the batter, said, “The ball comes really hard. It can kill you.”

Who would know better than a major league baseball player? Chase Headley, a third baseman for the Padres, tells family members to sit behind the net. His teammate Will Venable told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Most fans aren’t prepared for how fast those balls are coming off the bat  . . . Few people are paying attention to every pitch. It only takes one. And if the person in front of you dives out of the way, you are helpless.” Even Chipper Jones, the Braves’ legendary third baseman, has said that he would not permit his own children to sit in the unprotected areas behind the dugouts.

Fans get beaned. Popped in the eye. Whacked in the chest. How often? It’s impossible to say for certain. Data released by the Red Sox in 2003 as part of a lawsuit showed that during a five-year period in the 1990s at Fenway Park, between thirty-six and fifty-three people were injured by foul balls each season. (Major League Baseball did not return calls and emails for comment; the Braves declined to comment.) “You can find data on fatalities, but injuries—those are harder to find,” Gorman says. “Major League Baseball doesn’t want to know. They will tell you they don’t know. But it’s not that the information doesn’t exist. Every park has a first aid station, and I promise you the people in those stations are keeping track of everything. If someone gets an aspirin, that’s recorded. But the teams refuse to track these injuries.”

An image of Fletcher’s daughter’s head after her surgery. The dark lines in her forehead show the fractures.

Some ballparks contract with local hospitals by giving attending physicians tickets in exchange for being on call at games. When Andrew Milsten was getting his master’s degree in emergency health services in the early 2000s at the University of Maryland, he tended to injured fans at Orioles games in Baltimore. From reports he gathered over roughly two years, he and his coauthors concluded, in a 2003 study, that about thirty-eight people per million attendees suffer a foul ball injury.

“Teams aren’t usually willing to say you can use their data, but the Orioles let us,” says Milsten, now an associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “They don’t want to look bad, so it can be a battle.”

News reports provide anecdotal evidence. There was the woman in 1957, struck by a foul ball at a Phillies game and then, while being carried out on a stretcher, hit again by a ball from the same batter. The man in 1998 who lost an eye at a Boise Hawks game. The three-year-old girl in June of 2010 who was hit by a foul ball at a Los Angeles Dodgers game and suffered fractures in her skull.

Then came the Mets–Braves game at Turner Field four years ago.

After Cabrera’s bat connected with Dessens’s pitch, Fletcher heard someone yell, “Watch out!” He saw a flash of white. Then he heard a sickening smack. And then there was blood, and his wife was passing his crying daughter to him. He lifted her into his arms, her skinny legs dangling over the crook of his arm. Her face was buried in his chest.

The game had already resumed. Indeed, it had barely paused, except for a quick wince from Cabrera and the sight of Mets catcher Josh Thole rising and slowly reaching for his mask. But in section 116L, everyone was looking at the man who was racing his bleeding daughter up the steps. My husband and I stood, as though this could somehow help. We didn’t speak right away, but it was clear our minds were churning with the same thoughts. First: Oh my God, will that poor little girl be okay? Second, barely second: How close had we come to seeing this happen to our own baby? I held him tight, not even registering the next few pitches—strike, foul, foul, Cabrera popping out to shortstop—before insisting we get out of there.

Four years later, Fletcher is hunched over in a chair in the office of his attorney, E. Michael Moran of Law & Moran, in Midtown. The blinds are drawn. Fletcher angrily wipes the tears from his cheeks, mumbles “sorry,” and squints at his brown loafers. He has put the details of that night at the ballpark into a box in his brain and pushed it into a corner so that he can focus on client meetings, doing deals, scheduling babysitters, going to the girls’ basketball games, digging holes with them at the beach, and grabbing a kiss from his wife—the dream girl who loves sports but whom he has asked us to keep out of this story—before she travels to another business meeting of her own.

Fletcher never talks about “the accident,” as they call it, unless his daughter wants to, which she rarely does. So he shifts in his seat and avoids eye contact as he recalls the moments after the impact.

From section 116L to the nearest first aid station is a two-minute brisk walk. The Fletchers, with Fred carrying their injured daughter, certainly made it in less than that. Past the monitors blaring the telecast. Past the pitching booth with its incessant thwacks. Inside the first aid room, he kept yelling, “Get the ambulance! Let’s go!” But first, the medics needed to make copies of their IDs. It was maddening.

The other girls went home with family friends, while Fletcher and his wife waited for the ambulance. When it finally arrived, only one parent could ride along, so Fletcher’s wife climbed inside and sped off to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Fred Fletcher was left alone on the curb. His yellow polo shirt was streaked with blood.

“I was running. Nobody even helped me to my car. I ran, in a panic, to my car for fifteen, twenty minutes. I couldn’t communicate with my wife, so I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I could hear the sirens.”

At the hospital, he saw his daughter. She was crying, and then she fell unconscious. They loaded her onto a gurney and wheeled her away for emergency surgery.

This was around midnight. Fletcher called his mother in Puerto Rico, and she prayed the rosary, over and over. Hours later, the doctor came into the waiting room and told the Fletchers that their daughter had suffered numerous fractures in her skull, which had to be mended with metal plates. “Thirty-one little pieces,” Fletcher says, “and they put her skull back together.”

She was stable. She was going to live. Such good news, such a relief, but Fletcher wondered: What kind of life? The doctors moved her to intensive care.

“She slept for a long time,” Fletcher says. “My wife and I didn’t leave her bedside. And then she finally woke up, and she recognized us. She said, ‘Daddy, Mommy.’ God, we were so relieved.”

Then she wanted out. She did not want to be in a hospital, hated doctors. After having spent less than seventy-two hours in the intensive care unit, she went home with her family, her head wrapped in gauze.

“She’s a fighter,” Fletcher says. “She went to a speech pathologist, a physical therapist, the neurosurgeon, an ophthalmologist—a series of doctors for about six months—but she went back to school maybe a month after the injury.” (Fletcher won’t disclose further details on her condition.)

Fletcher drove to 8:30 a.m. Mass every day. At night, when he couldn’t sleep, he Googled the words “foul ball injury” and took notes on what he saw. For months after, questions buzzed in his head like a swarm of bees: Why did the safety nets cover only the seats behind home plate and just a bit outside of that? Intelligent, responsible, safety-conscious parents sit in the unprotected seats, and they don’t seem to know how dangerous they are. Why aren’t the teams and the league doing more to keep spectators safe? The National Hockey League put up extra netting after a teenage girl was killed at a game in 2002—why can’t Major League Baseball require ballparks to put up nets from dugout to dugout? Are they waiting for a kid to get killed? What can I do to stop that from happening?

Nothing, he realized, unless I sue the Braves.

The view from the seats where the Fletcher family sat.
Photograph by John E. McDonald

The courts aren’t often kind to people who sue over foul-ball-related injuries. Milsten looked at eighty-two foul ball cases from 1913 to 2008 and saw that only nineteen were decided in favor of the plaintiffs.

More typical are cases like the one in 1950, when a spectator sued the Boston American League Baseball Co. after she was hit in the face by a foul ball during a game against the Yankees. The court ruled that because she had gone to games before and knew that foul balls often ended up in the stands, she knew the risks, and the ballpark could not be held responsible.

The 2003 suit against the Red Sox was just as disappointing for the plaintiff. Jane Costa, who was hit in the face by a foul ball, said she didn’t know much about baseball and that she had no idea how dangerous it could be to sit in an unscreened area along the first-base line. In her suit, she said the warning on the back of the ticket wasn’t enough. The court found that the ballpark wasn’t responsible for providing additional warnings about “obvious danger” to people of “average intelligence.”

In 2013, Shirley Martinez, using a ticket donated by the Houston Astros for members of the Texas National Guard and their families, brought her child to a game. She carried the child and a stroller to her seats but was told she’d have to park the baby’s buggy elsewhere. When Martinez turned around to climb back up the stairs, she heard a shout about a fly ball and shielded her child with her arms. Martinez was struck in the face by the ball, fracturing her orbital bone and lacerating her cornea. Martinez’s lawsuit went nowhere after the court upheld “the Baseball Rule.”

Even after most baseball stadiums put up nets behind home plate, spectators continued to get injured. So to clarify who was liable and when, most states adopted some form of the Baseball Rule. Essentially, it says that stadium owners are not negligent if they install adequate screens where the potential for danger is the greatest: the seats directly behind home plate. The Baseball Rule varies somewhat from state to state, depending on the will of the courts and the legislatures.

Visitors to Turner Field hear occasional warnings over the loudspeakers about balls and bats leaving the field of play. There are signs on the backs of the dugouts. And in tiny type on the backs of the tickets, it says that they must “assume all risk and danger . . . including . . . thrown or batted balls,” and that the team is not liable for any injuries. But this doesn’t provide the kind of blanket protection the Braves would get from the Baseball Rule.

Right now, Georgia doesn’t have a defined Baseball Rule on the books. That’s what the Braves’ attorneys have been focusing on in the Fletcher suit, first filed in 2012. They’re asking the courts to institute an explicit form of the rule. Without it, they argue, every ball that enters the stands and strikes a spectator could lead to a lawsuit and a jury trial.

In a filing from the Fletcher case, the Braves’ legal team said the Baseball Rule would codify the existing practice, which, they said, balances the interests of fans who want protected seating and those who want to be close enough to the field to be able to lean in and catch foul balls and to watch a game without a net’s obstruction.

But Fletcher’s lawyers say the century-old Baseball Rule doesn’t take into account how baseball is changing. “The game is getting faster; the players are getting stronger. So it’s becoming more dangerous for fans who aren’t behind the nets,” Moran says.

He also believes that locking in the Baseball Rule in Georgia could discourage the Braves from adding new nets and carefully considering which areas are most dangerous for spectators when the team builds its new stadium in Cobb County, set to open in 2017. The team’s renderings show a 41,500-seat facility that, according to the website for the new field, places a “higher percentage of seats closer to the field than any other ballpark in Major League Baseball.”

The case has stalled in part because the two sides are fighting over whether it’s the job of the courts or of lawmakers to institute the Baseball Rule—should such a rule be instituted at all. (Update: On July 11, after this story went to press, the state Court of Appeals ruled not to adopt the Baseball Rule, meaning the case can proceed.)

Fletcher’s legal team hasn’t laid out just how much it hopes to get from the Braves. In court papers, his attorneys say the family’s medical expenses have likely exceeded $100,000, so they’re demanding that and coverage of future medical costs, as well as punitive damages. But none of this will be made explicit unless the case goes to trial.

In a case from 1984, the Georgia Court of Appeals chose not to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of an eight-year-old boy who was struck by a foul ball at Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium. The case was settled out of court. “I think the courts are going to side with [us],” Fletcher says. “What if I took a team of Little League baseball boys to a game? I’m supposed to assume the risk for all five of the children sitting there? And can a child understand the risks?”

James C. Kozlowski, an attorney and professor of sport and recreation studies at George Mason University, doesn’t think Fletcher can win. Here’s a comparison he uses: If a child is old enough to be walking somewhere unsupervised and drowns in a retention pond, there’s no landowner liability because the risk is “open and obvious.” He recalls a case when a toddler fell into a fire pit at a campground, was badly burned, and the parents sued. They lost in court. “That was considered an open and obvious risk, even to a kid of that age,” Kozlowski says. “The parents should have been supervising.”

Kozlowski knows this sounds harsh. Twenty years ago, when his daughter was about five years old, he took her to a Triple A game in Colorado Springs and stood with her and her siblings in an unprotected area along the third-base line. He started to tell them that if they heard him say “hit it,” they should immediately drop down.

Before he even had a chance to finish the thought, a ball whistled over their heads.

On the last day of June, after an eleven-day road trip, the Braves returned home to host the Mets. I bought seats in the same row and section where the Fletchers had sat almost four years before. These tickets can go for upwards of $100 each, seven or eight times the price of the cheapest seats at the Ted. Down here, just a couple of rows behind the dugout, you really do feel like you’re in the game. Especially when the foul balls start zinging over your head.

Of course, if I were actually on the field, I wouldn’t have been distracted by the guy selling popcorn. The young woman hawking 50–50 raffle tickets. And David, an usher and occasional magician, who made a penny in his palm stand on its edge. Then, realizing home plate was behind him, he spun around to face the field. He learned a long time ago that you shouldn’t turn your back to a left-handed batter. He’d been hit before.

In the row behind me were Travis Conley and his three children: six-year-old Mason, nine-year-old Harrison, and their sixteen-year-old sister, Ally. Conley told me that he once saw a twenty-something guy get hit by a foul ball at Wrigley Field. It wasn’t a line drive, but it looked like it hurt. Still, Conley isn’t afraid to have his three children sit in an unprotected area. And he doesn’t want the team to add more safety screens. “I don’t like watching the game through nets,” he said. “And really, if you worried about everything that can happen, you and your kids would never leave the house.”

I agree with that last point, in theory, but I couldn’t help but worry about the little girl to my right, holding up a red foam finger while sipping a Capri Sun and searching for her image on the Jumbotron. I wanted to warn the teenager with long blond extensions and perilously short cutoffs as she posed for a tongue-out selfie. I wanted to turn around and tell the Conley family to move to seats where there are nets to block foul balls, where the risk of getting hit in the head by a 100-mile-per-hour line drive is nonexistent. Maybe in those seats they wouldn’t be able to count the sunflower seed shells scattered at the third-base coach’s feet, but they’d be safer.

But this is just a baseball game, right? Nobody comes here thinking they’ll get hurt.

This article will appear in our August 2014 issue.