The death of Shannon Stone, the man who died after falling at Rangers Ballpark, had personal meaning for me. As a kid, I had an irrational, omnipresent fear that I would trip and fall while descending the aisle in the upper deck, and go over the edge. Especially at Shea Stadium, where the stairs were alarmingly steep.
But I don't intend to take someone else's tragedy and make it my own. I never fell, and I never saw anyone else fall. Nor do I want to linger on the Stone family's personal suffering. Instead, let's discuss railing height.
The lowest that the railing in front of the left field seats is allowed to be is 26 inches. According to the International Building Code, which is the bible for construction in this country, that's the absolute minimum barrier height in any stadium, auditorium, or similarly elevated platform seating.
That includes the concrete step plus the railing at Rangers Ballpark, so the Rangers are certainly in compliance. The exact height of the barrier in those left field seats hasn't been reported yet, but it's clearly more than 26 inches. To judge by the pictures, it's somewhere around hip height—near, but probably not above, an average adult man's center of mass.
How important is this height? Meeting the 26-inch minimum is the Lakers' main defense against a lawsuit over the 2-year-old boy who fell to his death at the Staples Center last year.
Tyler Morris, the firefighter who fell from the upper deck of Rangers Ballpark a year and a day before Stone, said that the railings in Arlington were good enough. He didn't blame the team, calling it at the time a "100 percent, total accident that could have happened to anybody." He's right, of course. It was that sort of freak thing where the randomness makes it so horrific.
Yet it's obviously not the first incident at this stadium. A more superstitious person would call it cursed from the beginning: at the very first game in the ballpark's history, a woman fell from the upper deck. She survived, but the team apparently took immediate action.
Club officials raised the railings after that 1994 opening day from 30.5 inches to 46 inches, they said, in the "upper and lower areas of the park." What specific sections they meant, we're not sure. But it's not the left field bleachers: 46 inches is nearly four feet, and the railings in that photo are not four feet above the ground.
(Notice the higher barrier at the bottom of the aisle. The 26-inch rule doesn't apply there. Where people might be coming down stairs, the Building Code minimum is 42 inches. My childhood fears were not completely without foundation.)
So while there's a legal minimum, there's no prescribed maximum. Except there is, of course. Sightlines! That most beneficial development in ballpark construction, which has really only taken hold in the past couple of decades. Forget retro, forget retractible domes, forget exposed concourses: the true legacy of the boom in new stadiums is the focus on open sightlines. If you're going to a game, they want you to be able to see it well without interruptions.
In this mindset, railings and other barriers are a nuisance. Too high, especially in sloped seating, and it interferes with the view. Railings become a problem to work around rather than a measure to be emphasized. So is this a problem special to the new ballparks?
This article notes that as of two seasons ago, the four most recent accidents involving falling fans had occurred at the newer ballparks. To that we can add a fatality at Miller Park last year plus the incidents with Tyler Morris and Shannon Stone.
So while the Rangers raised some barriers after the first fan fell, they didn't raise them all. A commitment to sightlines, perhaps? Those selfsame sightlines so praised by every architectural critic and sports writer and fan? It would be hard to blame the team.
I no longer worry about falling when I sit in the upper deck at a game, because I'm older and moderately more rational. But then, if Shannon Stone's death hadn't been so eminently irrational, it wouldn't sting as much. Maybe the worst-case scenario, captured in last night's indelible video, is never a bad thing to keep in the back of your mind, especially when you luck out with first-row tickets.