Baseball Fans Hit by Balls at Major League Parks Ask for Safety Changes: 'This Could Be a Non-Issue'
Stephanie Wapenski and Alex Hoskey both suffered injuries to their faces when they attended major league baseball games, and are hoping to convince the MLB to increase their safety precautions
It only took one second for a night at Massachusetts' Fenway Park to become one Stephanie Wapenski would never forget — for all the wrong reasons.
Wapenski and her husband were seated near the ballpark's third baseline to watch their hometown Boston Red Sox play their longtime rivals, the New York Yankees, in one of the biggest match-ups of the 2015 season.
With the game winding down, Yankees' shortstop Didi Gregorius stepped up the plate and Wapenski watched from her seat as the slugger swung and hit a foul ball. The ball flew towards the third baseline and into the stands, hitting Wapenski in the head. The impact immediately split open the skin between her eyes.
"I saw him swing, I saw a flash, and I was like, 'Oh, that's the ball going somewhere else,' " Wapenski, a longtime Red Sox fan, tells PEOPLE of that July night. "Then I felt the impact."
While she doesn't remember immediately feeling pain, Wapenski does recall putting her bleeding head into her hands and hearing her husband call for help. She was later diagnosed with a concussion, with the wound on her forehead taking dozens of stitches to close up. The scar is still there today.
Wapenski is far from the only person to suffer an injury due to an errant ball or object flying into the stands at ballparks. Just a month before Wapenski's incident, a woman was struck by a broken bat at Fenway while watching a Red Sox game. She suffered life-threatening injuries but survived. And in May 2019, a 2-year-old girl experienced brain damage after she was hit by a foul ball at the Houston Astros' Minute Maid Park.
Alexis Hoskey of Missouri was only 4 years old when she was hit by a foul ball at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas in 2011. It was her first baseball game.
"A player struck the ball and it went up and hit me right above my left eyebrow," Hoskey, now 14, tells PEOPLE of the Kansas City Royals game. "After having a CT scan it was diagnosed that I had a fractured skull and a subdural hematoma which is bleeding in or on the brain."
Even now, Hoskey says she still has memory problems and troubles with loud sounds because of the incident.
Both Hoskey and Wapenski are calling on major and minor league teams to increase their safety standards at ballparks.
The effort is being led by Jordan Skopp, a realtor and founder of the nonprofit, Foul Ball Safety Now. He hopes to see the formation of an independent oversight council to manage the expansion of netting at major and minor league stadiums.
"When I hear about fans getting injured at baseball games, specifically from foul balls, I get upset, as this could be a non-issue if stadiums had full netting all around," Skopp says. "I realized early on that these incidents were foreseeable and preventable, which is why I started Foul Ball Safety Now, in hopes for change."
While the MLB asked teams to extend protective netting in early 2018, a 79-year-old mother of three died in August of that year after she was hit in the head by a baseball that flew over the net while at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.
An NBC News investigation from 2019 found there were at least 808 reports of baseball-related injuries at ballparks over a seven-year period starting in 2012.
As noted by the Associated Press, professional sports teams are often protected from lawsuits over such incidents thanks to language printed on ticket stubs. Usually, tickets will include a message that says spectators assume certain risks by attending a game.
When reached by PEOPLE, the Royals did not respond, while the Red Sox said they have "significantly expanded the protective netting at Fenway Park" following recommendations adopted by MLB.
"Netting currently extends far beyond the dugouts – from Field Box Section 79 down the third baseline, to Field Box Section 9 down the first baseline," the team told PEOPLE. "We will continue to examine this issue along with MLB to ensure a game experience that is both safe and enjoyable."
When contacted by PEOPLE regarding improvements to netting at stadiums, the MLB sent press releases from December 2015 and February 2018, including comments Commissioner Rob Manfred provided during a 2019 winter meeting.
At the time, Manfred announced netting "that extends substantially beyond the far end of the dugout" would be extended at all 30 ballparks by the 2020 season. It is unclear if the netting was implemented at all stadiums amid the coronavirus pandemic and changes to the season.
According to RateYourSeats.com, a website that crowdsources photos and reviews of sports and concert venues, nearly all MLB teams had plans to expand their netting in early 2020.
The Chicago White Sox were the first team to expand their netting from foul-pole-to-foul-pole in 2019, the website notes.
Manfred also spoke of the difficulties when it comes to installing netting at stadiums.
"It's very difficult to extend netting all the way to the foul pole because you need to run cables over what would be inside the field of play," he said. "The data does show that the risk of foul balls is less when you get out past these elbows. And, again, the stands begin to angle way from the field of play."
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"The league has continued to leave their millions of fans in the dark about the predictable and preventable serious injuries from foul balls," he says.
When asked what he hopes for the future, Skopp says he won't be satisfied until all teams can guarantee objects used during the game won't harm fans.
"[I hope] every ballpark and stadium can one day hang a sign in it," he says, "which states no more maimings will ever happen at that particular ballpark or stadium from a baseball."
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