PEORIA — The Peoria Chiefs could be exchanging the baseball diamond for a courtroom very soon.
A lawsuit, naming the Chiefs as defendant, has been filed in the Tenth Circuit Court in Peoria County in an effort to force the Midwest League baseball team to extend the foul ball protective netting at Dozer Park.
The suit was filed against the Chiefs in late July by a Chicago attorney representing Peoria native Sandra Klatt, a fan who was severely injured when struck in the face by a foul ball at the Downtown Peoria ballpark in 2011.
"My goal isn't financial here," Klatt said. "It's to push them into getting nets put up. I want kids to be safe. And don't take the game away from them."
Klatt seeks to form a class action lawsuit and achieve injunctive relief — which could be a range of anything from halting games at Dozer Park to ordering immediate extension of the netting system.
The Chiefs, the Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit. But general manager Jason Mott explained the team's position on its netting:
"We are waiting on direction from Major League Baseball," Mott said. "They are in the final steps of finishing their study of the ballpark and providing recommendations. We should have that in the next few weeks. As soon as we get the report from MLB, we will move forward to get the net extended."
What is in the lawsuit?
Klatt's attorney, Greg Wilkowski, said the goal is to get protective netting installed sooner than the deadline of opening day 2025, set last December by Major League Baseball.
"We wanted to bring a lawsuit that left no stone unturned, using all the tools at our disposal," Wilkowski said. "Injunctive relief can be a lot of different tools, as yet undefined. But the goal is to get protective netting installed immediately.
"A class action is appropriate here because Sandy Klatt is not the only Chiefs fan who wants to be protected and has been injured at Chiefs games."
The suit reads in part:
"Ms. Klatt brings this taxpayer action on behalf of the City of Peoria under 65 ILCS 5/1-5-1 for damages, declaratory relief, and an injunction requiring the installation of protective netting … As shown herein, the Chiefs are in breach of the Redevelopment Agreement they have with Peoria by failing to maintain Dozer Park in a good condition and operate it in a professional manner, specific promises the Chiefs made to the City in return for public funding.
"Ms. Klatt also brings this action in her individual capacity and on behalf of a class of fans and seeks class-wide injunctive or equitable relief in the form of installation of protective netting in Dozer Park along the first and third base lines to the foul poles."
The City of Peoria will not join the lawsuit, according to the documents filed. The suit is structured to invite the city to join in suing the Chiefs. The documents filed extend the invitation to "enforce the terms of the (Dozer Park) Redevelopment Agreement (between the Chiefs and the City of Peoria) by suing the Chiefs for its breach of the Agreement. The City has declined to enforce the Agreement and sue the Chiefs for breach."
The foul ball that started it all
Sandra Klatt grew up in Peoria, went to Peoria High School and went on to a distinguished role as a pitcher with Bradley University's softball team, on a scholarship from 1986-89. "I was a damn good hitter, too," said Klatt, 54, laughing.
Klatt went to Dozer Park in July of 2011 to see the then Chicago Cubs farm club Chiefs play. Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano was on the mound, in a rehabilitation stint with Peoria, and the game was sold out.
"There were two or three of us together, it was standing room only," Klatt said. "We were standing behind the handicap section, ironically. People in wheelchairs would have had no chance to defend themselves from a foul ball. I came back from the bathroom, and I looked to right field at the scoreboard to see what I missed … and boom, I got hit."
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A foul ball smashed into her left eye, and she was on her way to a hospital.
"I was in the emergency room with another fan who had been hit," Klatt said. "I had a nasty contusion and my eye swelled shut. Thankfully, no damage to my eye.
"But I'm tired of people getting injured. Unless I'm wearing a catcher's mask it's not safe. I didn't ask for a dime from the Chiefs (in 2011). Just help for medical bills. And the Chiefs did that, paid my out-of-pocket."
Just as the lawsuit was being filed in late July, the Chiefs had another spectator hit by a foul ball at Dozer Park. It was believed to be a serious strike that required hospital treatment.
"There was a girl hit," Mott said. "I have heard she is home (from the hospital), but that is not confirmed from the family, so until we connect, I want to respect their privacy."
Klatt, a former Peoria emergency dispatcher, says she has tickets to the Chiefs home game on Sept. 6. Her seat is along the third base line in an area not covered by protective netting.
"I won't be there if the nets aren't there," she said.
Klatt saw a Facebook post by Brooklyn, N.Y., attorney Jordan Skopp, who has founded an advocacy group called Foul Ball Safety Now.
"It motivated me to do this," she said.
Extended netting and Dozer Park
The protective foul ball netting at Dozer Park covers the home plate area but stops just as it reaches the dugouts. Skopp says his research shows the ballpark might be the only one in the minors without protective netting that at least covers the dugouts. He wants netting all the way down to the foul poles.
Major League Baseball agrees with that, and has given its minor league teams until opening day in 2025 to install those nets among a long list of other required renovations that could cost local teams millions of dollars.
"It is irresponsible and dangerous for MLB and all professional baseball teams to be operating without extensive netting to protect fans," said Skopp, reacting to the Chiefs lawsuit in a statement through his advocacy group. "They should address this situation right now, not in 2025."
The Chiefs have been on Skopp's to-do list for a while. In June of 2021, he rented an airplane to fly over Dozer Park with a banner that read: "Wake up Dozer! Nets!"
Wilkowski says Skopp was instrumental in bringing everyone together for this lawsuit and providing research. The lawsuit is packed with Skopp's research citing injuries from ballparks all around the country, going back 50 years.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, under majority owner David Bielfeldt, have been prepared for changes to netting mandates for Dozer Park, which opened in 2002. The Chiefs had an extension of their nets planned in 2020, but COVID hit and the construction company they scheduled with could not do the work, delaying the project.
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Then baseball's annual Winter Meetings in San Diego last December produced a new mandate: Protective netting must be extended in every ballpark from foul pole to foul pole by 2025 or possibly face discipline from MLB, including fines.
Mott says the Chiefs had a second netting extension project scheduled for March 1, just before the 2023 season opened. But he says MLB interceded and told MiLB teams to wait until its engineers could study each ballpark and issue a renovation plan.
"The U.S. government and MLB have come together and said we need to have a standard with the netting, but the problem is every stadium is different," Mott told the Journal Star in February. "What works for one does not work for another. So now MLB is collecting pictures of every minor-league stadium in the country — we submitted ours last week — and an MLB-appointed engineering construction firm is evaluating how far and where the netting can go in each park."
Mott said in February that when the engineering report comes from MLB for Dozer Park, the team will put the netting project out for bids. The team will, at minimum, extend the nets to the end of the dugouts.
"If it's going to involve a longer extension, new poles and major engineering, we don't look at that as safe to do with players and fans and staff present during a season, so it would come after the 2023 season," Mott said then. "I project $50,000 to extend to the end of dugouts. You could be talking $250,000 to go to the foul poles."
Klatt's camp hopes to speed up that process.
"This situation has been building for some time," Wilkowski said. "Sandy Klatt's injury was in 2011. She's expected over the years to see some action taken and having noticed that the Chiefs stick out like a sore thumb in not even having netting to the dugouts at Dozer Park.
"Netting can be done in the next few weeks. The excuses given for why it's not done are not acceptable. What is a hospital bill for a foul ball injury?"
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: Peoria Chiefs baseball team faces lawsuit to extend protective netting