The “Baseball Rule” is derived from tort law, specifically negligence and assumption of risk. The duty of care for stadium owners varies from state to state (i.e. some state courts have held that stadium owners cannot increase the inherent risks of the game), but the general consensus is that a limited duty of care exists between stadium owners and spectators. In other words, the bar is rather low. (For more, see 24 Marq. Sports L. Rev. 123 (2013)).
The Major League Baseball (MLB) season is just around the corner, bringing with it warm weather, tailgating, and the growing risk of getting hit by a foul ball or flying bat. Baseball is arguably the safest sport to play, but it is also arguably the most dangerous sport to be a spectator.
Last season, approximately 2,568 injuries resulted from balls and bats exiting the field of play. Granted, the baseball season is significantly longer than other professional sports season, but it is certainly fair to assume that this number is astronomically higher than fan injuries resulting from gameplay in other sports. With exit velocities regularly registering above 100mph, this issue needs immediate addressing before the next critical injury to a fan.
Should It Stay, or Should It Go?
Baseball has long operated under the “Baseball Rule,” which says, in short, that by buying a ticket to a game, the ticket purchaser releases the team from liability for injuries sustained by balls and bats flying into the stands. Most courts have accepted this defense, but this is no longer acceptable.
Players are stronger and hit the ball harder than ever before. This, coupled with the increasing in-game entertainment that takes the fans focus away from the game itself, is making the fan experience increasingly more dangerous. To his credit, when he’s not obsessing over cutting game times down, Commissioner Rob Manfred has prioritized fan safety.
Prior to the 2016 season, Manfred recommended that all clubs extend netting
past the dugouts. The Rangers, Nationals, Royals, and Twins followed this recommendation; the Phillies, Astros, and Braves will follow suit this season.
However, a mere recommendation is not good enough. I understand the difficulties in enacting such a rule with the varying ballpark dimensions and the worry that netting will take away from the fan experience, but fan safety has to take priority.
Fans are not going to walk away from the game because of increased netting around the field. If anything, it will encourage fans with young children or less-than-attentive fans to purchase tickets closer to the field. I vividly remember sitting behind the first base dugout at Miller Park on multiple occasions and being slightly nervous about Geoff Jenkins yanking a line drive right at my face.
A recent HBO Real Sports poll showed that 77% of fans would like this kind of protection when bringing young children to the ballpark. If the MLB is really concerned about bringing in a younger audience, then maybe they should listen to parents when they say they want protection when bringing their children to the ballpark.
The MLB Players’ Association has voiced their support for increased fan safety. As an example, watch the reaction of a hitter when one of his foul balls injures a fan and you will quickly see why this has the strong support of the union.
Steps are taken every single year to protect players from the inherent risks of the sport they play, and players and fans alike have welcomed these player safety regulations. With that in mind, it is time for MLB to take more significant steps to protect the fans that buy tickets and support their teams all summer long.