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Should baseball teams be held liable when foul balls injure fans?

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In most walks of life, whether someone is liable to you for injuries caused by alleged negligence is determined by a judgment call: was the harm foreseeable and did they act reasonably to prevent the harm from occurring? That’s a matter for a jury to decide, and the jury can take all of the specific facts of the case into account in making that determination.

Ballpark operators, however, have typically had a safe harbor that shields them from having a jury decide whether they acted prudently. It’s called “The Baseball Rule,” and it’s a legal doctrine which underpins those little “we’re not liable for you getting injured by flying balls and bats” disclaimers on the back of your ticket.

The way it’s usually formulated by the courts is that stadium owners and operators must provide “screened seats for as many spectators as may be reasonably expected to call for them on any ordinary occasion,” and that if they do that, they’re legally absolved of liability. Typically, providing screens behind home plate and around to each side to some degree puts owners in the safe harbor. In that case, it’s a matter of law, not fact, and the judge will usually dismiss the case before it ever gets to a jury.

That rule has been challenged more and more in recent years. It’s still the majority rule across U.S. jurisdictions, but last year, for example, an Idaho court refused to adopt it in the case of a man injured by a foul ball and allowed a jury to decide whether the ballpark owner acted reasonably based on the facts and circumstances of the case rather than to simply dismiss it per The Baseball Rule. Now, in Atlanta, a family is challenging it in the wake of their six-year-old daughter suffering traumatic brain injury from a foul ball at a Braves game in 2010.

I get asked about The Baseball Rule a lot and I’ll admit that I’ve never felt 100% confident about it either way. On the one hand, baseball’s arguments for it are reasonable: fans actually want to catch foul balls and don’t like sitting behind the screen unless they’re right down low. If you put teams in the legal crosshairs for foul ball injuries and/or mandate that they put screens way down the lines teams will have little choice but to either move fans far from the action or block their view, making the product they’re selling — good seats at a ballgame — far less attractive. No one really wins in that scenario.

On the other hand, the ballpark experience has changed quite a bit since The Baseball Rule was first recognized. There are more distractions from game action. It’s far more of a family product than it used to be and you thus get a lot of little kids who can’t be expected to defend themselves from foul balls in the stands. Parks are also far more full and seats behind the screens are far more expensive than they used to be, making that part of The Baseball Rule in which spectators “may reasonably call” for screened seats potentially unworkable. Teams are often forcing people to choose between being out in the bleachers or paying $250 for a screened seat.

I don’t want to turn ballparks into padded cells, but I also think that the risks, particularly to children, of sitting in unprotected seats down the lines are undersold by teams and under appreciated by fans. It’s dangerous down there. Maybe a good step in between letting ballpark operators off the hook completely and making them liable absolutely is to make them warn fans far more explicitly. To actually publicize to fans what can actually happen to you if you’re hit by a screaming foul ball. To make fans actually assume the risk in the form of an actual waiver instead of the assumed one written on the backs of tickets which are rarely if ever read. Perhaps to make people who take young children to games explicitly disclaim responsibility or else not sit in unprotected seats.

As it is now, the warnings are pretty passive and the risks not as well-known as they could be. And the disclaimer system is something of a joke. Making each of these things more rigorous might have some small costs involved — kid-priced seats so as to identify and differentiate those who would sit in dangerous seats with children? A second piece of paper or an usher with a clipboard taking actual liability waivers? — but those costs pale compared to the sorts of liability awards teams might face if The Baseball Rule continues to be eroded.

And they pale even more definitively compared to the price some people, particularly some children, have paid with their health and even their lives.

Jake Diekman will miss at least half of the 2017 season

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 9: Jake Diekman #41 of the Texas Rangers works against the Toronto Blue Jays in the sixth inning during game three of the American League Division Series at Rogers Centre on October 9, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Rangers reliever Jake Diekman will have surgery on January 25 to help alleviate ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. As a result, the lefty will miss at least half of the 2017 regular season, Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports. Diekman was diagnosed with the illness when he was 11 years old. He has brought awareness to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America with a “Gut It Out” campaign.

Diekman, who turns 30 years old on Saturday, finished the 2016 campaign with a 3.40 ERA and a 59/26 K/BB ratio in 53 innings. He came to the Rangers from the Phillies in the Cole Hamels trade on July 31, 2015.

The Rangers and Diekman avoided arbitration last Friday, agreeing to a $2.55 million salary for the 2017 season.

The Blue Jays and Bautista have reached a one year deal

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 19:  Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on during batting practice prior to game five of the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians at Rogers Centre on October 19, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It’s been on the verge of happening for a few days now, but now it’s official: the Toronto Blue Jays and Jose Bautista have reached a one-year deal with a mutual option. The deal is pending physical. An announcement making the deal official is expected later in week.

The exact financial figures have not been disclosed, but Jon Heyman reports that it will be in excess of the $17.2 million Bautista turned down when he turned down the Jays’ qualifying offer.

Bautista had a tough 2016, hitting .234/.366/.452 with 22 home runs and 69 RBI, and some clubs likely considered a long-term deal for the 36-year-old too risky, this leading to the relative lack of reported interest in Bautista by other clubs. But back-to-back ALCS appearances by the Jays and the success and popularity Bautista has experienced in Toronto make his re-signing there a pretty sensible move for all involved.