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Original Issue

Safety Squeeze With new ballparks putting spectators closer than ever to the action, more fans are getting in harm's way

The best seats are the worst. A spot behind or next to a dugout
gives a baseball fan the opportunity to see a ballplayer sweat,
hear what little infield chatter remains in the game and dodge
potentially lethal projectiles whizzing at more than 100 mph.
Unprotected by netting, such seats are among the most dangerous
in sports.

Given the proximity of the seats and the potential harm inherent
in a speeding baseball, it's amazing that the major leagues have
suffered only one fan fatality caused by a batted ball. (In 1970
a 14-year-old boy died after being struck in the head by a foul
ball off the bat of Manny Mota of the Los Angeles Dodgers.)

The ballpark building boom of the past decade has brought fans
closer to the action. That also means they are closer to being in
harm's way. Spectators sitting behind home plate are protected by
netting; those near the dugouts get no such protection, though
their seats are not much farther from the plate. Dangerously
broken and inadvertently thrown bats also tend to alight in that
area. It is no coincidence that virtually every major league team
puts its players' family section directly behind home plate,
seats that are protected by the backstop.

For instance, no more dangerous seats exist than the ones behind
and near the third base dugout when two righthanded power
pitchers are starting. The lineups are usually loaded with
lefthanded hitters who are likely to swing late at fastballs,
whistling foul balls into the stands. Fans in those danger zones
need to pay attention to each pitch as closely as the third
baseman does.

Such seats are particularly dangerous for parents with infants
(babies should not even be allowed there), children (how many
elementary school kids are riveted to each pitch for a three-hour
game?) and the elderly (slowed reaction time makes them
vulnerable). Children and seniors are an important part of minor
league and spring training games, typically held in small
ballparks in which even the premium seats are affordable. The
risk, however, is enormous for even the most athletic onlookers.
In 1992 California Angels pitcher Matt Keough was hit in the
right temple and nearly killed by a line drive while seated in
the dugout of Scottsdale Stadium in Arizona. A fence was
installed in front of the dugout for the safety of the players
and staff.

Batting practice, with many fans hardly paying mind to the
humdrum workouts, can be even more dangerous than games. Though a
batting cage prevents harm to fans seated near the dugouts,
people sitting along the foul lines behind first and third base
routinely see balls buzzing past their nachos. Years ago in Vero
Beach, Fla., spring home to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the
shattering of an elderly woman's jaw by a foul ball could be
heard at the batting cage; it sounded as if someone had stepped
on an unopened bag of potato chips.

Ballparks typically post signs alerting fans to the danger of
foul balls. But they also present a sensory overload of
distractions, from vendors hawking food to scoreboards full of
information and video diversions. It's all done in the name of
harmless fun--until that one foul ball comes screaming at the
wrong time and in the wrong place. --Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID J. PHILLIP/AP CARRIED AWAY In 1998 an eight-year-old boy was sitting behind a dugout when he was hit by a bat that slipped from a hitter's hands.

TWO COLOR DIAGRAMS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JARED SCHNEIDMAN DANGER ZONE The most dangerous seats are those behind and near the dugouts, because there is no netting in front of them. For instance, fans seated along the third base line (right) must be alert when righthanded power pitchers face lefthanded hitters, who are apt to foul the ball into that area.