Foul Reporting on MLB Fan Safety and Foul Balls: Real Problems and Inaccuracies in HBO Real Sports Foul Ball Episode, PART II

20160702_183656Part II of my report exposing the inaccuracies of Bryant Gumbel’s “Real Sports” episode 229 covers the later data found in this episode relating to MLB fan safety. As noted in Part I, Gumbel’s report sensationalized foul ball related injuries to the point of being preposterous. The historical research, to be blunt, was appallingly non-existent, and the piece misrepresented reality, and even showed clips which contradicted the words coming from Gumbel’s mouth.

The second part of the episode was no better.

At about 8:15 Gumbel asserts that over 15 months, three fans were seriously injured. While nobody ever wants to see any other fan injured, that comes to one fan every five months. To put this into perspective: The season is about 6.5 months long. I’ll be generous and rouns up to seven. That means, based on Gumbel’s argument, 1.5 fans get seriously injured each season. Let me reiterate that: 1.5 fans are seriously injured each season. Considering each team has millions of fans over the course of each season, this is hardly an argument worth having. But Gumbel is stating this is for the entire league. Forbes and others note the 2015 Major League Baseball season had nearly 74 million fans in attendance. Again, I’ll be conservative and simply say 73, given the number reported is 73.8. If I understand my calculator shorthand correctly that comes out to be .00000000233% (my calculator reads 2,328767123287671e-8) of fans in attendance are “seriously injured” by a foul ball per season.

When we look at more facts missed by Gumbel and HBO’s “Real Sports,” we see too that only one fan has ever died as a result of a foul ball injury. In fact, when young Mr. Fish died, it was more due to a medic who misdiagnosed him rather than as a direct result of the foul ball. Soccer and the Tour de France have had more deaths related to the game than MLB has had since becoming the Major Leagues. Over 800 soccer fans have died due to injuries from riots in and outside of futbol stadiums. Even players have gotten involved in these melees. The Tour de France. In its 109 years, 27 fans have died. MLB 1, Tour de France 27. Over nearly the exact same time frame.

Major League Baseball is hardly as dangerous of a spectator sport as Gumbel and others make it out to be. Better security at the Tour de France would have save most or all of those fans who were killed while watching and trying to interact with the race.

Regrettably, there are more misrepresentations by Gumbel.

Who’s Resposible for Fan Safety?

20160617_210655 - CopyGumbel asserts too that Major League Baseball has a responsibility for fan protection by adding netting. He cites a case involving the Atlanta Braves. In this segment he fails to note the parents intentionally endangered their child by sitting him in such a danger area of the park. There were 30000 other seats from which to choose, nearly all of them are significantly safer than where the parents sat their son. Of the roughly 25 balls which find themselves going into the seats, roughly 50% of those ends up in the sections closest to the dugouts. The rest are peppered around the park. This means roughly 13 during a game. Based on simple trajectory models based on batter/pitcher matchups, slightly more balls travel to the third base side. A reasonable split is about 15 to the third base sections nearest the dugout; the remaining 10 travel to the same areas along the first base side.

Common sense dictates no parent should be sitting their kid in those areas. Yes, as Zlotnick argued on my Twitter feed on 7/27 around 2:30pm (oddly literally after I finished these two posts, but hadn’t posted them at all!) that parents should have a choice. They do. But the law, as he should know, also contains a provision called “reckless endangerment” which, as he knows, menas parents are required to no knowingly endanger their child’s life.

Gumbel follows this segment with one in which he’s praising the Japanese for caring so much about fan safety. He implies the netting—which is ugly and doesn’t fully cover the most dangerous seats completely—“seems to be” working in Japan. Japanese baseball teams have trained their ushers in basic medical and to check with a fan to see if they are okay. He fails to mention U.S. teams do the same thing. Teams like the Pirates, Joy Frank-Collins‘ piece notes, “’…go the extra mile to ensure the safety of their guests, he said, training ushers, security guards and any other employees who are interested in basic first aid so that they can render assistance until paramedics arrive on the scene. “It’s something that the Pirates do – they are really progressive about that – they want their people trained,” Tersine said. “It makes our jobs easier.’” ()”

Around the 12:40 mark, Gumbel discusses the few unprotected seats the Japanese have for fans, and even mentions the signage and P.A. announcements made in Japanese baseball. Again, U.S. baseball does the exact same thing. Gumbel ignores that fact in order to sensationalize and misrepresent reality.

Interestingly, the Japanese nets extend the same height as the tempered “hockey” glass I recommended to Major League Baseball Commissioner Manfred during the 2015 season. Manfred ignored my advice, extended netting by 70 feet on either side of The Slaughter Pen, and saw the netting fail at least four times in the first half of the season.

At around 14:10, Gumbel again makes incorrect assertions. He argues players are protected—but at 13:45 we see an image telling a different story as several players are fully exposed while in the dugout.

He states, “Ironically” MLB has seen it fit to install netting across the front of dugouts, covering more seating for those who wish to buy tickets in these areas. Two things are wrong with this: dugouts have had a barrier there. Look at images of Tiger Stadium. You can see fencing there. The Tigers stopped playing there September 27, 1999. The second issue with this report is that players still get pelted with foul balls, and not just pop-ups, but liners straight into the dugout. One incident this season (2016) saw a phone get destroyed by a screamer into the dugout.

It doesn’t appear Gumbel and his people did ANY sort of true research when they decided to do the episode.

Misrepresenting the Truth and “Real”-ity: A Major League Problem With WSU Experiment

While the entire episode is fully of misrepresentations and misleading statements, and the images it shows do often contradict reality, there is one segment which is especially troubling. I’m very disappointed in Washington State University’s Sports Science Lab, the group which set up the experiment that starts at about 14:50.

The test was to see if fans have enough time to react to an oncoming foul ball. The experiment is inherently flawed.

First and foremost, the Sports Science Lab group failed to make this a realistic experiment. Rather than duplicating the actions on the field which result in a foul ball, then set up a cannon to shoot balls at fans. They set up fans the distance most of them are at in a real park—75 feet—but that’s where the accuracy of the experiment stop. They forgot to set it up to be an accurate representation of a game. In a sense, they Mythbustered the experiment, sanitizing it rather than performing a real-world test.

A real game offers visual and audible cues for fans. There are two senses at work, even when the fan is distracted, one or both are still active. The sequence of event s is always the same, and the Sports Science Lab group ignored these crucial aspects.20160617_191520 - Copy

The normal sequence of an at-bat is this: The fan sees the pitcher release the ball. Seeing it move toward the batter, sees the batter swing, hears the crack of the bat, then can usually pick up the exit point off the bat with some accuracy, judging, then, whether or not the ball is headed in their direction.

What the Sports Science Lab of Washington State University did was take out the lead up sequence of events. They simply shot a ball out of a cannon. The fan had no other input, audio or visual, to make a decision. ALL stimuli was erased from the experiment.

As such, the experiment was an utter dud. It could not and should never be cited as evidence for anything relating to foul balls.

The average human response time is more than fast enough for a reaction. We see the proof in MLB footage nearly every day. Fans snag balls every single day. And they catch them while in these danger zones. The reason is simple: If a fan is paying attention they can pick up the ball off the bat. WSU’s team took out that aspect of an at-bat, thereby negating their experiment.

The team’s statement that there’s hardly any time to have a reaction in order to defend yourself is grossly inaccurate as well. The evidence to the contrary, as noted, is seen every single day in baseball. Fans catch balls at 75 feet. The number of serious injuries to fans accounts for barely anything (2.33e-8%). That’s based on Gumbel’s own numbers. The assertions Gumbel and the Sports Science Lab make are literally unsupported and based on inaccurate data and experiments.

Oddly, Gumbel remarks again that fans are often distracted by phones, eating and talking. Note that Gumbel admits fans are at fault several times throughout the episode, yet his overall message is that Major League Baseball is somehow responsible for all the injuries.

Gumbel ends the program with yet another misleading statement. He adds in two final points. The first is a segment with Andy Zlotnick around the 17 minute mark who asserts “this is family entertainment” and not the X-Games or some reality show where you “dodge zingers.” This struck me right away as a logical fallacy. Gumbel’s question was WHY do you have to sit in those seats. Zlotnick’s answer was a dodging of the question. He continued to demand MLB knows they are endangering the lives of fans and makes the decision to not protect “these people.” Notice he doesn’t address the question about sitting elsewhere. Not once. He places the onus on Major League Baseball despite fans having the choice to sit in 25000 other seats.

Zlotnick dodges Gumbel’s question like a good attorney does, by diverting attention from it and answering a different question. He distracts viewers from the facts and makes absurd assertions not based in reality. The facts are clear: Fans have a choice as to where they sit. There are more than enough warnings too. Anyone with a lick of knowledge about the game knows there are areas which get more foul balls hit into them.

Gumbel concludes with the results of two polls. MLB reported they don’t extend the nets farther because season ticket holders oppose the idea 9 to 1. In a poll HBO Real Sports on what “the average fan really thinks”, they found that 66% say more netting would not make the game less enjoyable. Note the difference in the fans polled. Nearly every seat in the danger zone areas are season ticket holders, people who buy the tickets in those areas well aware of the dangers. These are the most avid fans, the ones literally willing to take the chance at getting smoked by a ball by sitting close. Many of these seats are sold to the general public on ticket sites. The reason season tickets holders so overwhelmingly oppose netting is because they want the interaction and thrill those seats offer.

The general public poll Real Sports conducted is another example of a misleading segment. The vast majority of “average fans” don’t sit in these high danger areas. They sit farther back and more out of the way of the dangerous areas. They only sit in those spots when a season ticket holder offers the seats for sale or are a guest of the season ticket holder. As a result, the opinions of the “average fan” is irrelevant.

The onus is on Zlotnick and other fans to protect themselves by sitting in less dangerous seating. I don’t sit my kids anywhere near the dugout sections if I can help it. We get our tickets in the upper decks and outfield box seats. I want badly to sit in the dugout areas, but as a good father and an avid baseball fan, I know—as do 99.9% of other fans, including Zlotnick—those areas are dangerous. So I do the responsible thing and think about the safety of my children first, not my selfish desire to be in a high foul ball section.

It comes down to Gumbel misrepresenting the facts, allowing others to also misrepresent reality by making only assertions, not facts, and thereby trying to scare people into thinking there’s a large problem. There is a problem. It’s not MLB though. It’s fear mongers like Gumbel and HBO Real Sports and parents and fans who fail to recognize that they have a choice on where to sit to be safe. Nobody forced Zlotnick to sit in that area, but it’s not even an issue of his failure to pay attention. For his case, it’s about fans who decided to ignore the safety of other fans and who opened their umbrellas, obstructing Zlotnick’s view. MLB has NO control over fans opening umbrellas. Thus, Zlotnick is going after the wrong entity. And Gumbel gave him a pulpit from which to preach.

We still enjoy the game in the upper decks and lower outfield box seats.

Overall, if Gumbel proved anything, it’s that fans aren’t paying attention.