Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
What A Foul Ball Can Do

What A Foul Ball Can Do

Illustration: Jim Cooke, G/O Media

Laura Cusick and her husband Richard loved baseball. They loved it so much for so long that it became a part of their marriage. When they had kids, they taught them to love the game, too: to root for the home team (the Braves), and learn the players names, and to stretch in the seventh inning. They were a baseball family. But the Cusicks don’t love baseball anymore. They can’t. Not after what happened.

This isn’t the story of the first time the Cusicks took a road trip to see a baseball game, but it is the story of their last. They were visiting friends in St. Louis, and they got good tickets to see the Cardinals play the Braves, right behind the first-base dugout. Laura still talks about that day like a fan. She remembers that the reliever Atlanta brought in could throw in the high 90s. She remembers that one of those pitches snapped the batter’s bat in half on contact, and then everything changed.

She wasn’t sure where to look: at the flying bat splinters or at the ball. There wasn’t enough time to decide. It happened so quickly, the ball coming off the bat and flying by the side of her face—close and fast enough to lift up her hair—and smashing square into her husband’s eye. The ball broke every bone in his eye socket, his nose, his jaw. Laura has some medical background and the doctors at the hospital showed her the CAT scan.

“I was mortified,” she says. “It looked like someone had taken a grape and just smushed it. There was nothing left to it.” Rick recovered, but his eye didn’t. He can’t see out of it now.

“We can’t watch baseball anymore,” Laura says. “We hear the crack of the bat and we’re just waiting for the next hit.”

That sound is what sticks with people. In interviews with 11 people who have been injured by foul balls or witnessed a family member be injured, every one of them described the lingering trauma of that sound.

Kerry Flynn’s seven-year-old daughter was hit in the head by a foul ball at a minor league game in 2005. Flynn says the two sounds were almost the same: the sound of the ball hitting the bat, then the sound of the ball denting her daughter’s skull.

All 11 of those I spoke to watched the replay of a two-year-old girl hit by a foul ball in Houston on May 29 and felt their shoulders tense, their past traumas resurface. On June 26, the child’s family’s attorney announced that the girl suffered a skull fracture and seizure, plus subdural bleeding, brain contusions and brain edema. Then the victims watched a woman at a Chicago White Sox game get hit on June 10. A few of them were exchanging texts within 10 minutes of a young woman being hit in the head at Dodger Stadium on June 24. Because of a century-old rule, all of these people are liable for their injuries.

Last week, the Washington Nationals and the Chicago White Sox announced that they will extend the nets in their stadiums all the way to the foul poles. But what will it take for every baseball stadium to take fan safety as seriously? Those who have been injured ask themselves: If a two-year old getting hit in the head doesn’t change anything, what will? Does someone have to die?

Someone already died, in fact, but nothing changed.

Linda Goldbloom, like almost every victim of a foul ball interviewed for this story, was a huge baseball fan. She went to a Los Angeles Dodgers game in August 2018 to celebrate her 79th birthday and 59th wedding anniversary. Her seats were behind home plate, but above the net. In the top of the ninth inning, a San Diego Padres player fouled a ball straight back over the net and into Linda’s head. Though she was initially responsive, she died a few days later as a result of the injury.

The Dodgers did not comment on Linda’s death publicly for the rest of the season, and neither did Major League Baseball. It wasn’t until ESPN’s William Weinbaum broke the story of her death in February that anyone knew someone had died in a Major League ballpark. For Goldbloom’s family, the rest of the season was terrible. “We all had a really bad taste in our mouths,” Goldbloom’s daughter, Jana Brody, says. “It was the playoffs and everyone was constantly saying, ‘Yay Dodgers’ and we were still trying to mourn. No one knew that she had died.”

A young fan is carted away after being hit with a foul ball hit by Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger during the first inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies, Sunday, June 23, 2019, in Los Angeles.
A young fan is carted away after being hit with a foul ball hit by Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger during the first inning of a baseball game against the Colorado Rockies, Sunday, June 23, 2019, in Los Angeles.
Photo: Mark J. Terrill (AP)

Following Goldbloom’s death, the Dodgers did nothing to change their protective netting. The netting in in the stadium right now is the same as the netting in place the night Linda Goldbloom was hit by a foul ball. It has not been extended. It has not been heightened. For every game the Dodgers have played this season, someone has sat in her spot (Section 106, Row C, Seat 5) with no idea that a woman once died from injuries suffered right there. It wasn’t until June 24, almost a full year after Goldbloom had died, that the Dodgers announced they would extend the netting in their park to protect fans. They have not clarified how far the net will be extended, whether it will also be heightened, or at what date these changes will take place.

The Houston Astros have not announced any changes to their nets.

Part of the reason that Linda Goldbloom’s story remained unknown for so long is that many foul-ball injuries take time to display the full extent of their damage. For every incident as immediately traumatic as the one that occurred in Houston, which brought Cubs outfielder Albert Almora to tears while the game was still going on, there are many others that pass with relatively little notice. Many of the people interviewed for this story were able to (as you often hear announcer say on the broadcast) leave the stadium on their own. Sometimes that’s their only option.

Andy Zlotnick, who was hit by a foul ball on the first base line in Yankee Stadium in 2011, says that after he was hit, an usher came down to check on him. “He told me that they couldn’t get a stretcher or a wheelchair to me because of the stairs,” he says. “So here I am with the three boys walking out of the stadium with my eye just bleeding and bleeding. The Yankees fans, God bless them, gave me a standing ovation.”

Andy was lucky in some respects. He didn’t have a brain injury, but all of the bones around his eye and in his face were broken. He had five hours of surgery to reconstruct his face, and he was unable to work for a couple of months. His vision, unlike Rick’s, returned, but it still doubles, and he still has chronic pain in his face. He had insurance, but the injury still cost him $25,000 out of pocket.

While he was out of work, Zlotnik started doing research, and what he found were others like him. Once he started looking for them, he couldn’t stop seeing foul-ball injuries everywhere. Bloomberg reported in 2014 that foul balls injure approximately 1,750 fans a year. “I was like, ‘Geeze, this is happening to a lot of people,’” he said. “People are getting slaughtered, and no one is doing anything.” So he shared his story with a journalist who happened to live in his building. After going public with his frustrations and his injury, Zlotnik started getting emails and phone calls. He became the center of a community of people who had thought they were all alone.

Dina Simpson attended a minor-league baseball game in Eastlake, Ohio with her children’s elementary school. In the ninth inning, she was hit in the eye. Her nose and orbital bones were broken and a huge gash was stamped on her eyebrow. She spent three days in a trauma unit and within a month was told that she would remain permanently blind in her right eye. She missed two months of work, and then she got angry. Dina found Andy through his article, and together they created a place for people like them.

Now they belong to a support group for people who have been injured by foul balls. There are about 30 of them who communicate through Facebook, and more who aren’t on Facebook at all. Dina says they need each other. Though it is depressing to realize that they aren’t alone, there is reassurance in finding a community.

“Nobody is okay after something like this,” Dina says. “There is so much post-traumatic stress stuff that happens emotionally and physically. A lot of these people are disabled for the rest of their life, and more than that, nobody is sorry. There is nothing from some of these teams. I pray for everybody who gets hurt.”

Their group is depressingly growing. All of the people interviewed who are connected to the group found each other because after their (or their child’s) injury, they started googling and found out they weren’t alone.

“We got a lot of good press [after the news of Linda’s death was announced], but the main reactions I got were from other victims,” Brody says. “Suddenly all of these people were contacting me saying, ‘This happened to me. I’m still hurting.’ People keep joining the group.”

They feel safe to vent to each other: about what the teams are doing (or more often not doing), about their personal pain, and about the lingering trauma they feel every time they hear the crack of the bat. They text each other every time another person is hit. Then they wait for the latest victim to reach out, and most of them do. Right now they are all waiting to hear from the parents of the toddler who was hit in Houston. Her parents haven’t found them yet, and they’re worried about her.

Alicia Hughes-Hirshey’s son Dawson was hit in the head with a baseball at a college baseball game. They had barely even sat down when the ball came screeching in. Alicia remembers that after she heard the terrible “weird sound, like those sounds on Looney Tunes” of the ball colliding with her son’s skull, she spilled the soda that she hadn’t had time to set down yet.

Her son was seven years old when he was hit in April 2018. He was unconscious for four days, and in the children’s hospital for 40. “He was very, very blessed and we are very, very lucky,” she says. Her son had to relearn to walk and how to go up stairs, but he isn’t blind, and his brain is okay. That’s lucky.

A fan wipes her lip after she was hit on the mouth by a foul ball at a Chicago White Sox game.
A fan wipes her lip after she was hit on the mouth by a foul ball at a Chicago White Sox game.
Photo: David Banks (AP)

“I wanted to get in contact with the parents of the little girl in Houston,” she says. “It just breaks my heart. It makes me so angry that we continue to let this happen. I know how painful it was and how much my son went through and how blessed we are. I don’t know that everybody else will have the same outcome.”

She wants the same thing that everyone in the support group wants. Not money, for they’ve all given up on that, but for this not to happen to anyone else ever again. “I am literally begging,” Alicia says. “Please extend the nets. Please. Nobody else should have to go through this. It is senseless, and it is something we can fix. Even if it only saves one person from what our family went through, that’s worth it.”

Fans aren’t getting lightly bruised by foul balls. They are having their skulls dented, their eye sockets demolished, their eyeballs smushed. It’s gruesome, and bloody, and could be stopped by extending the nets.

It wasn’t long after the invention of the modern baseball game in 1869 that clubs began to worry about fan safety. The first nets to protect fans were erected in 1879 at the Providence Grays’ stadium. Before the nets were installed, the area behind the catcher was known colloquially as “the slaughter zone,” says Bob Gorman, author of Death at the Ballpark. The danger of foul balls is nothing new.

Gormon’s research has found 2,000 people who have died at baseball games (at every level of play combined), and he says people email him regularly with new victims to add. “That’s probably a low number,” he says. “Most people who go to a game have no idea how dangerous it is. Once you start reading about this, you become super-aware.”

There could be, he says, a slight uptick happening in the number of foul ball injuries happening recently. Gorman points to the closeness of the seats in new ballparks, the immense strength of the players, and changes to the baseballs themselves. “People think there’s a huge increase [in foul ball injuries] because people are becoming more aware of the danger,” Gorman says. “There are more stories about more people getting hit.” According to a FiveThirtyEight survey, 14,000 more foul balls were hit in 2018 than in 1998.

When asked how he became interested in sports injuries, Gorman mentions Brittanie Cecil, the 13-year-old girl who died after being struck in the head by a hockey puck at an NHL game in 2002. The NHL responded quickly; after the 2001-2002 season ended, the league instituted a rule that required protective netting behind the goal. No such drastic shift has happened in baseball.

Major League Baseball announced in February 2018 that all 30 Major League teams would extend their netting to at least the end of the dugouts, but that hasn’t been enough. Fans are still becoming injured and disabled in the stands. At a press conference last week, Commissioner Rob Manfred reiterated a commitment to keeping fan safety a “local matter,” which is to say that each club may choose how to implement their own nets. “Clubs have, with our encouragement and information, proceeded to improve the safety situation in their ballparks,” Manfred said.

When asked exactly what information and encouragement clubs are receiving from the commissioner’s office, Major League Baseball declined to comment. The league also declined to comment as to whether or not MLB has data that could improve club safety. The Washington Nationals, the Chicago White Sox, and the Houston Astros had no further comment. A 2012 independent study by several professors tried to determine which seats were most dangerous to sit in, but MLB has not released any data. Gorman finds it hard to believe that MLB wouldn’t have those numbers.

“Give me a break. Baseball keeps a stat on everything, absolutely everything. You know they’re tracking serious injuries, but also at least some clubs are probably tracking foul balls. Major and Minor League Baseball don’t want to disclose that information because it makes them more liable,” he says.

Fans assume the risk of injury when entering Major League ballparks, though it is unclear if they are aware of how serious those risks may be. All baseball tickets display some version of the following phrase: “The bearer of the ticket assumes all risk and danger incidental to the sport of baseball.” In other words, you, the fan, are liable if you get hurt. This is known as “The Baseball Rule,” because it does not exist in any other sport.

A young girl is carried from the stands after being hit by a foul ball in Houston.
A young girl is carried from the stands after being hit by a foul ball in Houston.
Photo: David J. Phillip (AP)

The Baseball Rule is more than a century old. Gorman says he’s found evidence that this law has worked against fans as early as 1899. The Baseball Rule requires stadiums to give fans the option of protected or unprotected seating and (according to early rulings) to screen the “most dangerous part of the grandstand.”

In exchange for doing those things and providing a disclaimer, fans are given the primary assumption of risk. In layman’s terms: if you choose to sit in an area not covered by the net and get hit by a foul ball, you’re on your own. A ballpark or team may choose to financially support someone injured in their park, but they have no legal requirement to do so. Zlotnick tried to sue the Yankees for their umbrella policy, which prevented him from being able to see the foul ball that blinded him, but the court sided with Major League Baseball. Most lawyers won’t even take a case from an injured baseball fan. That’s how strong the rule is.

And it’s not just Major League Baseball that poses this risk. Minor league baseball and college baseball also create these kinds of injuries. Gorman says that he sees plenty of dangerous foul balls at the Charlotte Knights minor league games he attends. Alicia Hughes-Hirshey’s son was hit in the head at a college baseball game.

Kerry Flynn was attending a minor league game with her daughters when her youngest was hit by a line drive to the head. The girl was seven years old, and was left with a fractured orbital bone and a depressed skull fracture. Even though it’s been 14 years since the incident, and Kerry’s daughter recovered (she has a steel plate in her head, but her vision is perfect), Kerry cries when talking about how they still have the ball that hit her daughter, this small object that changed their lives forever. Her older daughter, who saw the whole event play out, struggled with PTSD from the accident for years.

“I find it amazing that it takes a child of two years old getting hit for anyone in baseball to decide to care. Did the woman who died last year just not matter?Was my seven-year-old daughter not young enough?” Flynn says. “My daughter is scarred. She has a zig-zag cut from ear-to-ear, and when she puts her hair in a ponytail, you can see the scar. Or at least I can see it. I will always see that scar.”

The Flynns had attended the minor-league game as part of a company event. The team never reached out to check on her daughter. The next year, the ticket office called and asked them if they’d like to do it again. Absolutely not, they said.

Every victim of foul balls and every expert agrees: The nets need to be extended all the way down to the foul poles, and they need to be made taller. “I would like to see all 30 Major League Ballparks and all [256] Minor League ballparks extend the nets to the foul poles,” Dina Simpson says. “Nobody else needs to suffer and leave a park disabled like I did. One person should be enough.” Smaller nets, those who have been injured say, would be fine if they were constructed using data showing where foul balls land. But since no one knows if that data exists, the safest thing to do seems to be to just cover everyone.

The most common argument made against extending the nets is that no one wants to have their vision of the field further obstructed, even if only slightly. But consider Japan, the victims say. In the Japanese baseball league, netting extends all the way to the foul poles, and signs warn fans of the danger. In only a few sections of the Tokyo Dome are fans exposed to the field, and those seats are expensive. In them, fans are issued a helmet and a glove.

“Baseball makes this false assumption that fans hate the nets so much that they’d stop going to games,” Gorman says. “But where are the most expensive seats in the stadium? Behind the netting!” An ESPN survey in June found that 78 percent of fans support extending the netting.

Meanwhile, baseball stadiums are encouraging fans to look at funny bits on the jumbotron, and to tweet photos of themselves at the game. “It is unreasonable for anyone, even a serious fan, to be asked to pay attention constantly for a three-hour game.” Gorman says. “You’re not supposed to have a beer? Or talk to the person next to you?”

“No one would agree to willingly take their four-year-old child to a place where they thought they were going to get hammered with the ball,” Cusick says.

Paying attention isn’t enough. Fans who have been hit describe the speed with which the ball comes as a sound with an echo: the ball hits the bat and then almost instantly it hits your face. There is nothing anyone could do.

Even players—despite working for the organizations refusing to extend the nets—have been vocally in favor of extending the nets in order to keep fans safe. After the little girl was hit in Houston, many players spoke out in favor of extending the nets. Every player the Chicago Tribune asked about the nets wanted them extended.

That’s because the players know how dangerous these balls can be. Juan Encarnacion was hit by a foul ball in the on-deck circle in 2007 and sustained multiple eye-socket fractures. Players hit in the dugout have suffered broken jaws. In early June, Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb was hit on the back of the head by a line drive from J.T. Realmuto. These are professional baseball players wearing gloves, and they can’t stop these line drives. How then can the fans?

“I wish they would do the right thing before somebody else dies,” Zlotnick says.

In the meantime, the fans I spoke to aren’t going to games. They are traumatized, they say, and the parks are still too dangerous. Laura Cusick and her husband miss baseball. “It was our summertime thing: watching games, going to games, talking about games,” she says. They haven’t even been to the new Braves stadium.

“It’s sad,” she says. “We can’t watch baseball anymore. Baseball used to be this magical thing for us, and now it’s been taken away.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Laura Cusick’s last name.

Kelsey McKinney is a staff writer for Deadspin.

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