One of the most frightening days of my life came during a White Sox-Rockies spring training game 15 years ago.
I was feeling good about the seats I had bought near the third-base dugout. My wife and our three kids, ages 10, 8 and 7, would have a close-up view of the action.
Then the line drives started screaming all around us.
They mostly came off the bats of left-handed hitters but also from righties who had swung too soon on breaking balls. They came at a speed well beyond most humans’ ability to react to them. And there I sat, scared to death I wouldn’t be able to get in front of a laser headed for my family.
I bring this up because of the fan who is still being lauded for catching a foul ball with one hand while holding a baby in his other arm. It happened along the first-base line at Wrigley Field last week, and it is still the reigning champion on ESPN “SportsCenter’s” Top 10 plays of the day.
I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt for reflexively reaching out to catch a foul ball. He’ll get no such pass for bringing his 7-month-old son to seats just beyond the first-base dugout.
You have to be either unthinking, as I was when I bought those tickets years ago, or insane to sit near either dugout if you have a child with you. I cringe whenever I see anyone under 12 in those seats. I cringe when I see people above 70 in those seats. I cringe, period.
You won’t find many players or managers who will allow their families to sit in those danger zones. They’re well aware of how fast baseballs can travel off the bats of very powerful men.
I once asked former Cub Matt Stairs if he’d let his three daughters sit near a dugout.
“No chance,” he said. “I want them behind home plate (where there is netting) or I want them in the family room. They can watch the game on TV.”
I’m not sure why we’re still celebrating the Cubs fan’s circus act. At first blush, sure. Father catches ball while baby drinks from his bottle. Cute. Then you wonder what would have happened if he had missed.
And then you think about the woman who was hit in the head by a broken bat at Fenway Park earlier this month. Police initially said Tonya Carpenter, 44, had life-threatening injuries, but she recovered enough to be discharged from a hospital and transferred to a rehabilitation center. Her boyfriend says she is in almost constant pain and is relearning how to walk and talk.
Here’s a report of the incident from ESPN.com:
Alex Merlis, of Brookline, Mass., said he was sitting in the row behind the woman when the broken bat flew into the stands.
“It was violent,” he said of the impact to her forehead and top of her head. “She bled a lot. A lot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that.”
Merlis said the woman had been sitting with a small child and a man. After she was injured, the man was tending to her, and other people were trying to console the distraught child, he said.
Makes you want to grab those seats along the third-base line, doesn’t it? Makes you want to applaud a fan for catching a baseball while holding a baby, right?
The solution, of course, is netting in front of the seats from third base to first base and perhaps beyond. The netting behind home plate isn’t nearly enough. After the incident at Fenway, Major League Baseball said it would look into the safety issues, which is what it says any time there are serious injuries. Don’t kid yourself. There are lots of injuries in the stands that never make the newspapers. Teams rarely release figures, but the Rockies revealed in 1995 that 45 people were hurt by foul balls that season.
Baseball knows that one of the delights for fans is the possibility of catching a foul ball. It makes them part of the action. Signs at every ballpark warn of balls entering the stands. Be aware at all times, those signs say. But even the most-focused fan lacks the reflexes to stop a ball traveling 100 m.p.h. Throw in the distraction of smart phones, and it’s over.
Back to that game 15 years ago. The Rockies’ Jeff Cirillo caught a pop fly right in front of us to end an inning, then tossed the ball to one of my sons. We left with a souvenir and no injuries. It felt like a miracle.