Baseball | BASEBALL BULLET-IN

Protecting fans from batted balls presents an ongoing challenge

by Wayne Graczyk

The recent recommendation by Major League Baseball that its teams expand protective netting between the playing field and stands at the ball parks is a good one. Too many fans have been injured by foul balls and bats flung into the stands, and the wise move is to follow the standard in Japanese stadiums.

Spectators at Central and Pacific League games are shielded by screens not only behind home plate and the first- and third-base dugouts, but also from the left-field pole to the right-field pole, covering all of foul territory.

Besides the netting, fans at Japanese games are warned when a foul ball is headed their way by whistles blown by stadium staff members. There are also constant reminders throughout games to watch out for foul balls, by way of P.A. announcements and video board messages.

When a foul ball does go into the seats, a stadium staffer goes to the area where the ball went, checking to make certain all the fans are OK and no one was injured after having been hit by the ball.

The biggest reason fans get hurt, though, is they are not paying attention and not watching the game but instead chatting with friends next to them, buying a beer or other drink or food item from a vendor — or even talking on a cell phone.

Several years ago, I wrote a column with incidents I have witnessed first-hand whereby fans were hit by foul balls at Japanese games, because they were preoccupied with something other than watching the action on the field.

There was the grandfather, mother and two boys who came into a Yomiuri Giants game at Tokyo Dome after the game had begun. The mom left her dad and the kids in their seats while she went to the concession stand. When she came back 10 minutes later, she was shocked to see grandad being carried out for first aid treatment after he had been hit in the head with a foul ball.

Then there was the couple watching a Lotte game at Chiba Marine Stadium with their young son who appeared to be about 3. A foul ball headed their way, so the father ducked to his left, the mother bailed to her right—and the line drive hit the child, sitting between the parents, square in the chest.

Back at Tokyo Dome, a fan with really bad timing was returning from a food stand to his seat through an entrance-exit tunnel with a plate of nachos, when a foul ball knocked the snack out of his hands, sending taco chips, ground beef, melted cheese and jalapeno peppers flying.

In 2014, at a countryside game between the Giants and Yakult Swallows in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, a Swallows right-handed batter sent a screaming liner down the left-field line. It was far enough from home plate for any spectator to see it coming and get out of the way.

However, a few minutes later, an elderly woman fan, bleeding profusely, was being escorted to the emergency room for treatment. She had obviously been hit by the line drive that just cleared the netting and flew into the stands.

Baseball, concerned about the safety of players and others on the field, has over the past few years made rules changes to better protect them. For example, it is mandatory for first — and third-base coaches in MLB and NPB to wear batting helmets while on the lines.

This change came about after Mike Coolbaugh (brother of Scott Coolbaugh, a Hanshin Tiger in 1995) was hit by a batted ball and died while coaching first base during a minor league game in the U.S. in 2007.

Last season, some major league pitchers were seen on the mound voluntarily wearing a protective liner inside their soft caps to guard against being hit in the head by another kind of liner, but the fans need protection as well.

Tickets to sporting events, including NPB games, state in their terms and conditions printed on the reverse side a disclaimer declaring the teams and leagues not responsible for injuries to fans.

“But they sue us anyway when someone gets hurt,” a Central League official said several years ago.

Earlier this year, a woman claimed she lost the sight in one eye after being hit by a ball at a Nippon Ham Fighters game at Sapporo Dome. She filed suit and was awarded ¥42 million. After that, the team added to the whistles with a loud, old-time-car-sounding horn, “A-oo-ga, a-oo-ga,” sound effect to warn fans about approaching foul balls at home games.

Ironically, Japanese parks have in recent years installed “exciting seats” where fans are close to the action with no netting or other protection in front of them. Each fan in the Tokyo Dome field seats gets a helmet to wear during the game and a fielder’s glove to snare batted balls hit into the section. The fans are told to use them, but many do not.

Years ago, there was a publication called “Fan Te-cho,” a guide book in Japanese, and any fan who purchased the book was automatically insured against injuries caused by batted balls at Japanese games. Unfortunately, the “Fan Te-cho” went out of business in 2004.

So, what is the answer?

The increased netting and “A-oo-ga” horns will help, but the fans have got to pay attention to the game. If everyone in the stands would anticipate a foul ball coming their way, there should be fewer incidents.

Former Fighters manager and current bench coach with the Houston Astros Trey Hillman was one who thought the nets separated the fans from the players too much. Hillman wrote last week in an email:

“I was one of those years ago in favor of dropping the nets to allow the fans more interaction with the players on the field, especially during batting practice for autographs and shaking hands.

“As I have gotten older and have seen more games in Japan and the United States, I think the best of both worlds would be to have retractable nets, leaving them down during batting practice in non-dangerous areas, then raising them for the game. Things just move too fast at the major league level, and it puts too many (fans) in harm’s way, with all the distractions.”

Good idea.

Fans, keep your heads up at the games and have a Happy New Year.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com