Baseball still dragging its feet on protective netting

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Todd Frazier #29 of the New York Yankees reacts after a child was hit by a foul ball off his bat in the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins on September 20, 2017 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – The slightly drooping right eye and the small bump on the side of her nose are the only outward signs that Geoffrey Jacobson’s daughter’s face was once on the receiving end of a 106-mph line drive off the bat of a major-league baseball player.

Besides, Jacobson says, “It’s only something a father or mother would notice, because we knew how it was before.”

The psychic scars may take longer to heal, however.

The little girl has no clear memory of that day two years ago in Yankee Stadium, when a foul ball hit by Todd Frazier in the fifth inning of a game between the Yankees and Twins homed in on her before her grandfather, in whose arms she was cradled, could stop it from slamming into her forehead.

The ball came so fast the fan sitting next to them picked it up without realizing it had hit anyone.

But somewhere in the little girl’s memory, that nightmare image still lives; at a recent dinner party with her parents, she walked in carrying a doll. She was pressing an icepack to its forehead.

“Dolly got hit by a baseball,” she said, stunning the other guests in an awkward silence.

If the sight of a then 2-year-old girl nearly getting killed by a baseball — a sight that hushed Yankee Stadium and had Frazier, along with his teammate Matt Holliday, Yankees third base coach Joe Espada and Twins third baseman Eduardo Escobar kneeling in prayer and near tears — wasn’t enough to spur MLB to force its teams to extend the safety nettings in their ballparks from foul pole to foul pole, it’s tough to imagine what would be.

And if what happened to the Jacobson girl — her family has withheld the publishing of her first name to protect her privacy — wasn’t enough, what happened at Minute Maid Park in Houston in May certainly should have been.

In a strikingly similar incident, a line drive hit by Albert Almora Jr. of the Cubs struck a 2-year-old girl in the head. She suffered skull fractures and bleeding on the brain and has had seizures as a result of her injuries. Her family has not been identified publicly and calls to her lawyer for comment were not returned.

And yet, only 11 teams have — or at least announced their intention — extended netting beyond the ends of the dugouts and into the outfield, a seating area which in an era of juiced baseballs, flame-throwing pitchers and all-or-nothing swingers has turned into a veritable kill zone for fans. The rest sit silently, following the lead of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who has dragged his feet, preferring to leave the matter in the hands of the individual teams.

The reason baseball can adopt such a policy is because of the so-called “Baseball Rule,” a court judgment handed down in 1913 by a Missouri appellate court, which ruled that S.J. Crane, a spectator who suffered broken ribs from a foul ball during an American Association game, was not entitled to his request for $100 in medical expenses from the team because he chose to sit in an unprotected area of the ballpark.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JULY 22: The Chicago White Sox warmup in the outfield before the game against the Miami Marlins behind newly installed extended protective netting at Guaranteed Rate Field that runs from the ends of each dugout down to the foul poles on each side of the field of play, on July 22, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

Since then, virtually every fan who has attempted to sue a ball club for injuries suffered during a game has fallen victim to that precedent. The disclaimer printed on the back of every ticket and posted throughout every ballpark that states fans are responsible for their own safety from thrown or batted balls has effectively indemnified baseball owners for 105 years now.

The rule has been challenged numerous times, most recently in New York by Andrew Zlotnick, a Yankee fan who was blinded in one eye by a foul ball that whistled through a thicket of umbrellas on a rainy night at Yankee Stadium, preventing him from seeing the ball or taking defensive measures. After a seven-year battle through the courts, Zlotnick’s case was tossed by the N.Y. Court of Appeals last year.

That has not stopped Zlotnick, an attorney, from continuing to fight for the overturning of the Baseball Rule.

“For me, it’s not about the money, it’s about seeking justice and making sure the next guy who sits in my seat doesn’t get hurt like I did,” Zlotnick said. “I have pain every waking moment of every day. I can’t heal the wound but I can try to help others not have to suffer the way I did.”

After first offering to reimburse Zlotnick’s medical expenses, the Yankees later changed their minds, and went to war against him with an army of lawyers. In the Jacobson case, however, the team has reimbursed the family for out-of-pocket costs estimated by Geoffrey Jacobson at $4,000.

“At first, they offered me memorabilia and crap like that,” Jacobson said. “I said no thanks. But they have kept their word on the expenses.”

By the start of the 2018 season, the Yankees — who had been resistant to extending their netting for fear of alienating the fans who pay for their high-priced field-level seats — installed netting more than halfway into their outfield, to the section of the ballpark where the seats angle back from the field, ostensibly out of harm’s way.

Yankee executives said the delay was due to the need for the architects who designed their ballpark to come up with an effective way to string the netting so as to cause minimal distraction to their fans. However, the Mets, their crosstown rivals, were able to extend the netting at Citi Field into the outfield during the 2017 All-Star break.

In the two years since that terrifying day at Yankee Stadium, Jacobson says his daughter has made a nearly complete recovery. The vision in her right eye, so severely damaged by the impact that she had to wear an eye patch for months, has returned to “an almost acceptable level.” She is periodically monitored for cerebral events such as “absence seizures,” in which a child may zone out due to lingering brain injury. And there remains the possibility that as she gets older, her slight facial deformities may worsen to the point that they may require surgery.

Still, Jacobson considers his daughter to have been extraordinarily lucky.

“An inch to the right or the left, it could have been very different,” he said. “Because she’s so young, she probably healed better than an older person might have. I have no doubt that if that ball had hit either of my parents, they would have died.”

Jacobson said the first anniversary of his daughter’s injury last September was hard enough to face. But in light of the similarity of the incident in Houston — Jacobson’s daughter also suffered a fractured nose, a crushed orbital bone and bleeding on the brain — makes this one even more difficult.

“In light of what happened in Houston, it feels as fresh now as it did then,” he said. “This whole ordeal has been the worst time in my family’s lives. The second-worst time was hearing that another little girl was hurt.”

Although Jacobson has returned to Yankee Stadium, once to sit in the same seats his daughter and parents had occupied to see if they were now protected by netting — they are — he says it will be a long time before he takes his daughter or her 6-year-old brother to another ballgame.

“Right now, my wife and I won’t even consider that, and if we ever do, it will be behind netting or in a box behind glass,” he said. “It’s hard to enjoy the game now. Whenever a ball goes into the stands, I’m looking to see if it hit someone else’s kid. And when I heard about the girl in Houston, all I could think of was, could I have done something to prevent it?

“But really, the teams that actually have control over the situation are the ones that should be asking that question. Shouldn't they?”

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