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

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Within any good collection of inspirational quote posters, you’ll find a variation on this one: “When everything feels like an uphill struggle, just think of the view from the top.”

Down at the bottom of the hill, Jordan Skopp is preparing to take a long walk.

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

Because all but 13 major league games were closed to fans between April and October, most teams have had ample time to prepare their venues for 2021. This is why Skopp, a realtor from Brooklyn, believes the time is now to “mandate comprehensive extended netting at all MLB, minor league and spring training facilities.”

“We’re all going back into harm’s way when the stadiums open up again,” Skopp said on a Zoom with reporters on Wednesday. “Until the stadiums are certified as safe, major and minor league stadiums, then it’s just going to continue.”

Skopp’s campaign to raise awareness and effect practical change comes from a good place. He was joined on the Zoom session by Irwin Goldbloom, whose wife Linda died as a result of head trauma she sustained when a foul ball struck her in the head at Dodger Stadium in 2018. Linda Goldbloom was 79.

Irwin Goldbloom isn’t involved with the book, but his desire to call attention to the issue runs deep.

“My goal,” Goldbloom said, “is to never have this happen to anybody 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 in the ballpark are of paramount concern both to Major League Baseball and to the individual clubs.”

Without saying her name publicly, teams snapped to action following Goldbloom’s death.

At Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, the nets were extended from foul pole to foul pole in July of 2019. Dodger Stadium soon followed with its own changes, extending both the height and width of its protective netting beyond both dugouts. Another 15 teams were expected to extend their nets after the 2019 season. By the time the 2020 season was scheduled to begin, Manfred said, all 30 teams were expected to feature netting “that extends substantially beyond the far end of (each) dugout.”

The White Sox played only 35 home games with fans in attendance since their nets were extended. The Dodgers played only 14. We haven’t had enough time to know whether their new netting is too much, too little, or just right. The timing of the latest call to action, however well-intentioned, is curious.

Skopp said his book calls attention to a net’s most important attribute – not height or width, but quality. He said he spoke to three different netting manufacturers in the course of his research.

“What I learned, which was sort of alarming, there’s possibly an intentional gap left open” between the net and the permanent structures separating fans from the field, Skopp said. “That in itself is weird. Even if someone’s not directly behind that open gap, the ricochet can definitely get somebody this way or that way. That may be worth a little further investigation.”

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

The twists and turns of Camlin’s lawsuit are instructive for Skopp and any other foul-ball victim advocates. MLB was subsequently dismissed as a defendant. The Pirates, and the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, reportedly settled with Camlin out of court. That left Pronets, the net manufacturer, as the lone defendant in the case. More than four years after her original injury, Camlin’s case is still tied up in appeals.

For injured fans who pursue litigation, such a long timeline isn’t necessarily uncommon.

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

The problem facing all potential litigants lies in the fine print – literally. When purchasing a ticket to a baseball game, fans are required to assume risks and dangers incidental to the sport, including those incurred by foul balls. Bill Boyer Jr., the lawyer who argued Mason’s case, said some states are quick to dismiss foul ball-related lawsuits for this reason.

“The law in Michigan at the time, and currently, is that a pro sports organization has no duty under the law to provide netting. That’s absolute,” Boyer said. “In Michigan there’s nothing that anybody can do short of the legislature creating a law that requires that, and our appellate courts from saying that … baseball clubs owe a duty to put up netting.”

In a society full of potential litigants, that matters. Skopp suggested that any municipal agencies with the authority to certify buildings as safe should not certify stadiums in which foul balls present a risk to fans. Would that distinction make a difference in the courts? The answer might depend on the legal precedent established by the state in question.

It doesn’t take long before an apparently simple issue becomes incredibly complex. Teams can extend their nets all they want, but a baseball-sized gap or an especially elastic net still poses problems. The legal system can act as a safeguard, but this apparently 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 is off, it might not affect meaningful change.

Now seems like a particularly problematic time for local legislators to engage teams on the foul ball issue, publicly or privately. Keeping fans safe from the novel coronavirus is their first, second and third order of shared business. That won’t change for months.

The uphill battles are often most worth fighting. This one isn’t going away, at least if Skopp and the family of Linda Goldbloom have anything 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. Irwin Goldbloom said she never received a response. The victims of foul ball injuries and their advocates still have something to say.

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