Saturday, July 9, 2011

We Should Do What We Can

The deeper one goes into the tragic story of Shannon Stone, the firefighter who fell to his death during Thursday night's Ranger game, the more pointless his death seems to be.

But I believe it is a clarion call.

Stone, as just about everyone knows by now, tumbled over the railing trying to catch a baseball. What went through his mind, what motivated him can only be guessed — but the emerging story of a devoted father strongly suggests he was trying to catch it for his son.

Such selflessness only makes this story more tragic.

There was a time when most, if not all, ballparks had netting around elevated sections — but that practice was stopped, as I understand it, because fans went out on the netting to try to catch baseballs, making it unsafe.

Yes, there was a railing in front of Stone's seat — but if you have seen the video, you know that it wasn't sufficient to prevent even an average–sized man from losing his balance if he was leaning forward trying to catch a ball. (I haven't heard how tall Stone was, but, just from watching the video and knowing his profession, my guess is that he was taller than average.)

I was listening to a local sports talk radio show here in Dallas yesterday, and one of the hosts reminisced about when he moved to the area in the 1990s and there wasn't even a railing like the one that could not prevent Thursday's tragedy — as if the fact that the installation of a short railing since that time could somehow mitigate what happened.

It can't, of course, but it is a reminder that there are steps that baseball in general, not just the Rangers organization, needs to consider. Seriously.

Rangers President Nolan Ryan pointed out that players toss balls into the stands all the time now. He doesn't remember whether there was a policy that either encouraged or discouraged it when he was playing, but he speculated that it evolved from a desire on the part of baseball in general to be more accessible to fans.

That's a good objective, but it carries a certain amount of responsibility. What happened in Arlington can happen anywhere, and the co–objective must be to prevent tragedies like that from happening again.

Stadium management can't install a two–foot railing and honestly believe it can keep a six–foot man from falling. You can't take away netting that is supposed to keep people safe because inadequate security permits people to congregate on them.

Stone was doing something that has become increasingly difficult for people to do — take their children to ballgames. Gone are the days when a father could take his kids to a ballgame and buy them hot dogs and caps for a few bucks.

It's a major investment now, especially in this economy, but there are still folks who want to share the experience with their children.

Baseball should do whatever it can to encourage them to do that. To be sure, baseball does have special promotions, yes — Family Night or Ball Night or whatever — but that is really about the profit margin, not fan safety.

It may be more confining — and expensive — for fans to install more adequate barriers to keep them from being hurt. It may be more expensive to hire additional security people to make sure no one gets on the netting during games.

But isn't the good public relations of a safe, family–friendly environment worth it?

Drivers don't like being told to wear seatbelts, and motorcyclists don't like being compelled to wear helmets, but they are required to do so because they make the experience safer.

Really, I believe this should be a no–brainer.

I sort of feel the way the panels investigating the sinking of the Titanic must have felt when they heard that there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board.

Why not?

The people who operated the Titanic justified their decision a couple of ways — (a) the Titanic was believed to be unsinkable, and (b) the lifeboats on board met specifications. As I recall from my studies of that disaster, the number of lifeboats actually exceeded what was required at the time. But still there weren't enough.

We know sports events aren't always safe — and there are certain things you really can't prevent — but it is incumbent upon stadium management to do whatever it can.

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