With an eye toward Japan, fans call on MLB to protect crowds from dangerous foul balls
Alexis Hoskey was 4 years old when a baseball fractured her skull.
It was a night like any other under the lights at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, one of MLB’s most beautiful settings, in April 2011. Alexis’ father, Monte, had gotten tickets through work and the family decided to go see a game — Alexis’ first.
There were others with them and the adults allowed Alexis and other children to sit together. It was $1 hotdog night at the ballpark and the hometown Royals were facing the Minnesota Twins. The first pitch was just after 7 p.m., so it was still light out.
Then, early in the game, Wilson Betemit hit a foul ball that rocketed into the stands.
"I saw the ball get hit, then in a flash — I'm pretty sure I followed it in — I saw it hit her,” Monte Hoskey told The Japan Times over the phone. “I didn't process it because it just happened so fast. I didn't have a chance to react. I even questioned whether it happened or not, because it literally bounced off her head and went down three or four rows in front of her. She didn't start crying, she just had a stunned look on her face. It seemed like 30 seconds, but it probably wasn't. Then all of a sudden she just started screaming and crying."
Foul balls go into the stands during every baseball game. Sometimes a lucky fan snags a souvenir. Other times a 4-year-old child ends up with a bruised eye and a brain bleed. The danger is there’s no way to tell which outcome you’ll get when the ball is hit.
There’s almost no way to react to balls traveling at excessive speeds. A foul ball that struck a 2-year-old girl at a 2019 game between the Cubs and Astros in Houston was reportedly a 106-mph (171-kph) line drive. It's not just children. During a news conference last week, Red Sox fan Stephanie Wapenski said she kept score at games and was always focused on the action and only saw a flash of light when she was hit in 2015, when she was 36. Monte Hoskey said a couple college baseball players who sat near Alexis apologized to him for not being able to react fast enough.
Longtime baseball fan Jordan Skopp is wondering why it has to be this way. Skopp, a Brooklyn realtor and lifelong New York Mets fan, has been advocating for MLB to install more netting, similar to what’s seen at NPB stadiums in Japan, to protect fans from foul balls.
"MLB for whatever reason has not put a mandate out to all major and minor league teams to work with an independent netting council of engineers and architects to make sure fast balls are not going to reach people, which unfortunately they continually do," Skopp told The Japan Times.
Skopp has sent letters to MLB and appeared on various media outlets to discuss the issue. He says his research has shown it would cost teams around $50,000 to extend netting in their stadiums. In 2019, he says he offered to pay the cost for the Mets and New York Yankees install more netting at their stadiums. Skopp has also set up a website and is currently working on a book about the issue. He's drawn support from other fans, some who have joined his efforts.
Some MLB teams have extended netting beyond covering the area behind the plate and the dugouts in recent years and said they will do more. Skopp, though, is skeptical.
In Japan, some NPB stadiums have netting that stretches to the foul poles. Most cover a lot of the area down the baselines. Ushers blow whistles to alert fans when balls are coming near and announcements on the PA system and scoreboard accompany almost every foul ball. The NPB system isn't perfect. In 2015, a woman was hit and said she was seriously injured by a foul ball during a game at Sapporo Dome. She filed a lawsuit and was awarded ¥42 million ($405,000). The NPB setup does, however, protect fans from some of the most dangerous balls.
“From the little exposure that I've gotten from Japanese baseball, it sounds like people don't have exposure to any hot spots where balls are going to be traveling at very fast velocities," Skopp said. "If America replicated what was happening in Japan, no longer would people be faced with 80, 90, 100, 110, 120 mph foul balls."
The ball that hit Hoskey, who is now preparing for high school, caused a subdural hematoma, a condition where blood collects between the skull and the brain. Her father says she was lucky the pressure eased on its own so surgery wasn’t required. Her eye was bruised and swollen shut for nearly two weeks. When she was able to open it, her the area around her iris and pupil was bright red. She was on bed rest for two weeks and had multiple CAT scans. She suffered from headaches for some time afterward and couldn’t be around loud noises.
Her father says she’s been diagnosed with ADHD “due to a traumatic brain injury.”
"Obviously, I think they should extend nets because of my injury," she said. "I'm someone it happened to. I personally, obviously, think we should have more safety or more of letting people know there is a strong possibility that a ball could come into this area or something like that."
On Oct. 1, 2019, an article published by NBC News said its investigation "found at least 808 reports of injuries to fans from baseballs from 2012 to 2019" in MLB. The network noted that while some injuries were from home runs or fans chasing balls in the stands, most were the result of foul balls.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the issue in 2019, shortly after the fan was hospitalized after being hit by the foul ball in Houston.
"Look, I think it is important that we continue to focus on fan safety," Manfred was quoted as saying in a story by the Associated Press. "If that means that the netting has to go beyond the dugouts, so be it. Each ballpark is different. The reason I hesitate with 'beyond the dugout,' I mean, a lot of clubs are beyond the dugout already. But there is a balance here. We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don't want to sit behind nets. I think that we have struck the balance in favor of fan safety so far, and I think we will continue to do that going forward."
Alexis Hoskey doesn’t think netting changes the fan experience.
"I'm pretty sure they're small, so you can still see fine," she said. "I guess going to a game, if they didn't want to sit behind a net, sure, that's their risk. But I don't think they fully understand. They're probably just like 'oh, we just want to enjoy the entire game. We could get hit, but it's not that big of a deal.'
“But the outcomes of actually getting hit with one ranges so differently that I don't think they think of all the possible outcomes that could possibly happen if they did actually get hit with a baseball.”
Among the myriad of injuries caused by foul balls, there are two recorded instances of fans dying after being hit at an MLB game.
The first was 14-year-old Alan Fish, who was hit during a game at Dodger Stadium in 1970 and died four days later. In 2018, 79-year-old Linda Goldbloom died after being hit during a game at the same stadium.
Skopp is adamant MLB should've already taken action, likening the league to the U.S. tobacco industry’s efforts to hide the effects of cigarette smoking.
"Netting is the only solution to prevent injury," he says. "No children should've been allowed at baseball games in certain sections since 1970, when Alan Fish, a 14-year-old boy, died. From that point on, baseball, I believe, is just like Big Tobacco. They had the information and decided not to share it with us. They didn't tell us that this happens all the time, speeding balls coming at you.”
Skopp plans to keep shouting until MLB listens.
“People should have the right to watch the games and not think about the possibilities of their children being seriously injured,” he said. “Most people don't really have an idea that it happens all the time.”