NEW YORK — It might be the shot heard around the baseball world: the rocket-like foul ball that hit a young girl at a New York Yankees game.
In the hours after the girl was struck in the face by the 105-mph screamer, the game’s commissioner vowed to push harder for all teams to extend protective netting to the end of the dugouts and the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres committed to do just that by next year. A U.S. senator urged the commissioner to "put the safety of your fans first" and extend nets at all ballparks.
Several legal observers of baseball, which has long been shielded from lawsuits over fan injuries, saw it as a potential game changer.
"America’s pastime is breaking America’s heart. That little girl, that’s everyone’s daughter," said lawyer Bob Hilliard, who represents fans in a California lawsuit that seeks class action status to sue on behalf of 1,750 fans hit by balls and bats at games each year.
The line drive off the bat of Yankees slugger Todd Frazier on Wednesday hit the girl in the face in less than a second, and the game came to a halt as she was treated in the stands. Frazier and other players from the Yankees and Minnesota Twins kneeled in prayer, and many fans were in stunned silence or in tears.
The toddler remained hospitalized Thursday. Her father said soon after she was hit, "She’s doing all right. Just keep her in your thoughts."
In a statement Thursday, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred called the events "extremely upsetting."
"Over the past few seasons MLB has worked with our clubs to expand the amount of netting in our ballparks," Manfred said. "In light of yesterday’s event, we will redouble our efforts on this important issue."
About a third of the 30 major league teams, the Yankees not among them, have at the commissioner’s urging extended the netting to at least the far end of the dugout. The Reds have promised to do it by next season’s opening day.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told Manfred in a letter to push to extend safety netting from 10 to all 30 ballparks.
On a visit to the Padres, Manfred said he was encouraged by the number of conversations MLB had with clubs on Thursday about adding additional netting for 2018.
Among them were the Padres, who said they will extend netting to the end of each dugout by opening day.
"I think by redoubling I mean continuing to focus and conversations with the clubs to get them to make decisions that make sense in their local markets and given the configurations of their ballparks," Manfred said. "I think probably the best concrete evidence of redoubling is the number of conversations that took place between my office and individual clubs on this topic."
Hilliard’s lawsuit seeks to go further, to force clubs to extend protective netting from foul pole to foul pole. But like other lawsuits over decades, it was tossed out. An appeal will be heard in San Francisco in December.
"A day at the ballpark should not be a game of Russian Roulette, especially for children injured by projectiles in disturbingly disproportionate numbers," lawyers wrote in court papers seeking the lawsuit’s reinstatement.
Most of the fans struck by balls and bats at games each year suffer minor injuries, but a few have been critically injured or killed. The more tragic results include a 14-year-old boy who died four days after he was hit on the left side of his head at Dodger Stadium in May 1970 and a 39-year-old woman who died a day after she was struck in the temple by a foul ball at a San Angelo Colts game in 2010.
But fans may be unaware of the stark legal reality of baseball: Successfully suing teams over such cases is nearly impossible. The fine print on every baseball ticket comes with a disclaimer that the bearer "assumes all risk and danger incidental to the game."
For the last century or so, baseball has been virtually immune from such lawsuits because of what has become known as the Baseball Rule.
Ed Edmonds, a retired professor of law at Notre Dame Law School who co-authored "Baseball Meets the Law," said at least two states, Idaho and Indiana, have turned away from automatic application of the Baseball Rule. But four other states, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois and New Jersey, passed legislation protecting teams from lawsuits.
New York real estate executive Andy Zlotnick, who unsuccessfully sued the Yankees after he was hit in the face by a ball at a game six years ago, said he required major reconstructive surgery and still has throbbing pain in his cheek, numbness in his lips and gums, double vision and retina damage. He said he has not gone to a game since.
"Nobody should go to a ballpark and come out without an eye or disabled," he said. "Enough is enough."
Dina Simpson, a Chardon, Ohio, mother of three young children, said she permanently lost one eye sight after she was struck by a baseball in May at a minor league game in Eastlake, Ohio.
"They have the Baseball Rule. They think this happens, you can’t sue us, have a nice day. It’s sickening. It’s absolutely sickening," she said. "I’m praying for that little girl. … It’s heartbreaking and it’s preventable."