Hoornstra: Foul ball victims and their advocates have a message to spread

Within any good collection of inspirational quote posters, you’ll find a variation of this one: “When everything feels like a tough battle, consider the view from the top.”

At the bottom of the hill, Jordan Skopp prepares for a long walk.

Skopp is the author of an upcoming book that focuses on protecting fans from errant foul balls in professional parks. Depending on your point of view, now is the best or worst time to pick up this torch. After all, baseball did a pretty good job of protecting fans from foul balls in 2020. Better than ever, in fact.

With all but 13 Major League-games between April and October without fans, most teams have had ample time to prepare their venues for 2021. That’s why Skopp, a broker from Brooklyn, believes it is now time to “mandate extensive comprehensive netting at all MLB, minor league, and jumping training facilities.”

“We will all be in danger again when the stadiums reopen,” Skopp said in a Zoom with reporters on Wednesday. “Until the stadiums are certified as safe, large and less important stadiums, it will continue.”

Skopp’s campaign to raise awareness and bring about practical change comes from a good place. During the Zoom session, he was joined by Erwin Goldbloom, whose wife Linda died of head trauma sustained when a foul ball hit her in the head at Dodger Stadium in 2018. Linda Goldbloom was 79.

Erwin Goldbloom is not involved with the book, but his desire to draw attention to the problem runs deep.

“My goal,” said Goldbloom, “is for this to never happen to anyone again.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred echoed this thought at last year’s Winter Meetings: “I hope it goes without saying that the safety of our fans on the baseball field is of the utmost importance, both for Major League Baseball and individual clubs.”

Without saying her name publicly, teams took action after Goldbloom’s death.

At Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, the nets were extended from fault pole to fault pole in July 2019. Dodger Stadium soon followed with its own changes, extending both the height and width of the protective net beyond both dugouts. An additional 15 teams were expected to extend their nets after the 2019 season. By the time the 2020 season started, Manfred said, all 30 teams were expected to have a net “that extends significantly beyond the end of ( any) dug-out. ”

The White Sox have only played 35 home games with fans in attendance since their nets were extended. The Dodgers only played fourteen. We haven’t had enough time to know if their new one is just too much, too little, or just right. The timing of the final call to action, however well-intentioned, is curious.

Skopp said his book draws attention to the most important characteristic of a net – not height or width, but quality. He said he spoke with three different net producers in the course of his investigation.

“What I learned, which was a bit alarming, is that there may have been an intentional gap” between the net and the permanent structures that separate fans from the field, Skopp said. “That is strange in itself. Even if someone isn’t directly behind that open hole, the ricochet can definitely get someone this way or that way. That might be worth a little further research. ”

In March 2016, a fan attending a Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park was hit with a foul ball while standing in the front row of seats directly behind home plate. A protective net was in place, but it was not enough to keep the ball from hitting Wendy Camlin in the back of the head. She filed a lawsuit to hold MLB, the Pirates, the municipal authority that owns PNC Park and the net’s manufacturer liable for her injuries.

The twists and turns of Camlin’s trial are educational to Skopp and other defenders of the victim of an error. MLB was subsequently fired as defendant. The Pirates, and the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, have reportedly reached a settlement with Camlin. That left Pronets, the network manufacturer, as the only defendant in the case. More than four years after her original injury, Camlin’s case is still on appeal.

For injured fans pursuing a lawsuit, such a long timeline is not necessarily uncommon.

Carey Mason, a Tigers fan, was hit in the head in 2015 by a foul ball in Comerica Park. She was in an area near the home cabin that is now protected by a net, but it wasn’t at the time. Her case was not resolved until 2019 when an appellate judge in Michigan upheld an earlier dismissal of the charge.

The problem that all potential litigants face literally lies in the fine print. When purchasing a ticket to a baseball game, fans are required to accept risks and dangers associated with the sport, including those incurred from foul balls. Bill Boyer Jr., the attorney who advocated Mason’s case, said some states are quick to dismiss lawsuits related to bad balls for this reason.

“Michigan law at the time, and currently, states that a professional sports organization is not required by law to provide netting. That’s absolute, ”Boyer said. “In Michigan, there is nothing anyone can do but have the legislature make a law that requires it, and our courts of appeal say … baseball clubs have a duty to build nets.”

That is important in a society full of potential parties. Skopp suggested that municipal agencies with the power to certify buildings as safe should not certify stadiums where foul balls pose a risk to fans. Would that distinction make a difference in the courts? The answer may depend on the legal precedent set by the state in question.

It doesn’t take long for a seemingly simple matter to become incredibly complex. Teams can extend their nets as they please, but a hole the size of a baseball or a particularly elastic net will still cause problems. The legal system can act as a safeguard, but apparently this is more true in some states than others. Skopp can write a book and an open letter to the commissioner, and circulate a petition (he’s done all three), but if the timing of his message isn’t right, it may not affect meaningful change.

It now seems like a particularly problematic time for local lawmakers to engage teams in the foul ball issue, whether public or private. Protecting fans from the new coronavirus is their first, second and third order of shared business. That won’t change for months.

The uphill battles are often worth fighting. This one won’t go away, at least if Skopp and Linda Goldbloom’s family have something to say. Goldbloom’s daughter, Jana Brody, wrote a letter to MLB and to the MLB Players’ Association in the wake of her mother’s death. Erwin Goldbloom said she never received a response. The victims of foul ball injuries and their advocates still have something to say.