Fans split on stadium safety changes
Railings raised at some stadiums, but some fans think making changes unnecessary
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ronnie Hargis remembers his right hand brushing Shannon Stone's shorts as he tried to grab the 6-foot-3-inch firefighter who went over a front-row railing in Section 5 of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
But Hargis missed. Stone's 6-year-old son Cooper, who had been standing next to Hargis, saw his dad fall 20 feet to the concrete below. Stone, 39, died about an hour later.
Even though Hargis struggles to come to terms with the events of July 7, he does not believe that the 33-inch railing that Stone fell over was too low. He joins a cadre of fans who disagree with the Rangers' decision to raise all front-row railings to 42 inches in response to Stone's fall and two other falls before it.
As officials with other Major League Baseball ballparks say they're currently reviewing their railings, baseball fans are divided on whether to raise the railings, keep them where they are, or implement alternative safety measures, such as nets.
"I think the railings are fine. I have no problem with the ballpark whatsoever," said Hargis. "I believe if you do raise the railings up, that just gets people to stand on top of the railings or crawl up the railings to get a ball. I think you just need to be aware of your surroundings."
Since 1969, there have been 22 fall-related fatalities at major league ballparks, according to the "Death at the Ballpark" blog compiled by authors David Weeks and Robert Gorman, who published a book by the same name. Those numbers include all types of fatalities, including suicides and fans who were intoxicated or engaged in risky behavior.
Three recent deaths -- one at Coors Field in Denver in May, one at Turner Field in Atlanta in May 2008, and one at Shea Stadium in New York in April 2008 -- happened when men fell while trying to slide down staircase or escalator railings. Officials ruled alcohol a factor in the incidents in Denver and Atlanta.
VIDEO: Nolan Ryan on stadium safety
Rangers president discusses stadium changes and fans' reactions. Watch
Only one of those 22 fatalities, in addition to Stone, was a fan who died pursuing a ball in the stands, according to the blog. And that was 51-year-old Stuart Springstube, from a small town about 120 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
It was a tradition for Springstube to watch batting practice at Miller Park in Milwaukee before the games; in a spare bedroom, he even kept a display of more than a dozen balls caught at batting practices at Miller Park and Wrigley Field. On April 25, 2010, his favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, was practicing before its matchup against the Milwaukee Brewers, when Springstube reached over a railing to catch a ball and fell about 15 feet to the field below. Springstube was conscious when his wife, Cheri -- who was at the ballpark but not in the stands at the time -- met him in the emergency room of a local hospital.
"I didn't think he was going to die," she said. Doctors told her that her husband suffered several broken ribs, a torn aorta and a brain bleed. Every few days they would find another break or injury, she said. Even so, she said he seemed to be improving and even asked for his laptop to be brought up to his room so he could manage his fantasy baseball team. But on May 12, 2010, Springstube suffered a brain hemorrhage, went into cardiac arrest and died.
Cheri Springstube said she didn't know the height of the railing over which her husband fell. Last week, "Outside the Lines" sent someone to measure the front-row railings in the left-field section where Stuart Springstube was standing, and they were 30 inches high.
Representatives from the Brewers referred all questions about the incident to Mike Duckett, executive director of the Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, the public agency that owns and operates Miller Park. Duckett refused to answer questions about the railings or Springstube's death, saying in an email that he wasn't "even sure when or where in Miller Park the incident occurred," and that the district had "no involvement in the matter."
Two years ago, Busch Stadium in St. Louis was the site of two major falls. In both incidents, which occurred within a couple months of each other, fans were injured but have since recovered. On April 21, 2009, a man fell 18 feet from the front row of the Casino Queen Party Porch section and landed on a woman below. And on June 26, a man fainted before a game on a particularly hot day and went over a front-row railing in the fourth deck, falling 12 feet to the concourse. Both of those railings were 30 inches high.
Last summer at Rangers Ballpark, William Tyler Morris fell over a 30-inch railing trying to catch a foul ball. He fell 30 feet onto a row of fans and suffered a fractured skull and sprained ankle. And on April 11, 1994, on the stadium's first opening day, Hollye Minter fell backward over a 30-inch railing while posing for a picture. Some witnesses said she was sitting on the rail, but Minter said she wasn't, and said her feet were on the ground before she went over.
"I had my hand on the rail and someone got my attention. And I looked up, and your natural instinct when you look up is to go backwards a little bit, and just that little bit, I went over," she said. She fell 35 feet onto an empty row of chairs and suffered severe injuries to her neck, shoulder, ribs and leg that took six months to heal.
Shortly after Minter's fall, in 1994, the Rangers raised the railings in the section where she fell to 46 inches, but left other railings unchanged. It was the basis for a lawsuit Minter filed against the Rangers, who settled for an undisclosed sum.
"The rails are low," Minter said. "When Tyler Morris fell, I believe I said they need to make some changes or somebody's going to die."
The Rangers decided not to make any changes after Morris' accident in 2010. But Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan said Stone's death last month caused them to reconsider.
"We'd had two incidences in a year and that's extremely unusual," Ryan said. "We felt like that [for] the safety of our fans that we needed to look at our stadium and see if there were things that we could do to make it safer for our fans because we pride ourselves on fan experience at the ballpark."
Engineers are trying to design 42-inch railings with minimal impact to fans' front-row views of the field, Ryan said. Even if fans protest at first, he expects they'll adjust to the change just as they have in Home Run Porch, the area where the railings have already been raised to 46 inches.
"It's pipe railing. I don't hear any complaints about it at all," Ryan said. "So I think that they'll just develop a comfort level with it."
Baseball fans from Texas and beyond have already reacted to the Rangers' decision.
Nick Palermo, 24, from Rocky Hill, Conn., said he thought the decision was a "good PR move for the Rangers" to show they care about fans. "But in reality I don't think a few inches to the railing height would have stopped Shannon from trying to catch the foul ball for his son," he said in an email. "If anything, it would make the foul balls harder to catch, and more dangerous because it's just a higher obstacle to reach over."
Eric Fulks offered an alternate solution. The 31-year-old from Emporia, Va., said ballparks should install nets that would catch people if they fell, which is an idea both supported -- and slammed -- by others. He said he's worried about railings making it hard for people, especially children, to see the game. With so few people actually getting injured, he said he doesn't think the inconvenience is worth it.
"It's hard to justify possibly taking some fans out of the equation because they can't see ... by adding some high railing," he said.
Members of the Stone family did not respond to requests to speak to "Outside the Lines," but Hargis said that in conversations he's had with the Stones, they told him that Shannon's death was just a "freak accident" and that even they did not believe the railings were too low.
Officials with Major League Baseball encouraged all clubs to review stadium operations, including railings, after Stone's fall at Rangers Ballpark. A few teams indicated they were doing just that, although none has so far indicated it would follow the Rangers' lead and raise all railings in front of seating sections to 42 inches. The new ballpark for the Florida Marlins in Miami, currently under construction, is being designed with railings as low as 30 inches.
"If one stadium says, 'Yeah, they're too low. We should raise them so it doesn't happen again,' then all of them should," said Cheri Springstube. "All of them should look at it and review it. Obviously, it's not safe."
"Outside the Lines" contacted officials with all 30 Major League Baseball ballparks to get information on the heights of their front-row railings, and only 10 responded with actual measurements. Minimum front-row railing heights ranged from a high of 36 inches down to 26 inches, which is the minimum height allowed under the International Building Code.
Officials from several other stadiums -- for which measurements were not provided -- indicated that they complied with the IBC or local building codes. It's common for local jurisdictions to adopt the IBC, although some do have higher standards.
The 26-inch minimum height for front-row railings dates back to 1929, when it was included in the National Fire Protection Association Building Exits Code. The guide set building safety standards for all types of structures and was created in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in New York City that killed 146 people.
Robert Solomon, NFPA Building Fire Protection and Life Safety division manager, said the original code developers likely set the standard at a height where railings wouldn't impede someone's view, and that it was designed mainly for theaters and symphony halls -- not ballparks. Even so, considering the number of people who safely attend ballgames every summer (2.2 billion since 1969), Solomon said he believes the standard has worked to protect fans .
"We start to pare back from that and look at the injuries and the fatalities, those are small numbers," he said. "Now in no way do I want to discount the death of even one person because that is, that's something that we do want to look at, but there's something here where that rule has worked."
But Tom Larimer, owner of Larimer Design, Architecture and Planning near San Diego, said he feels 26 inches is too low.
"We strive to get up to 34 or even 36 inches when we can," said Larimer, who has worked in ballpark design. "The problem I have with 26 inches is that it falls right at the -- just above the knee, kind of middle to lower portion of the thigh. And if you have any body momentum whatsoever leaning over that rail it's going to be pretty easy for your center of gravity to go over that rail."
Stone, who was 6 feet, 3 inches tall, fell over a 33-inch railing, which Hargis said he recalls coming up to Stone a bit below his belt buckle. A 42-inch railing -- which is what all front-row railings at Rangers Ballpark will be next season -- would have rested just above his hips. A 42-inch railing would reach the stomach of someone who is 5-foot-9, the average height of an American male. Springstube was 5-foot-4; a 42-inch railing would have come up to his sternum.
A 42-inch railing also could hit directly in the line of sight of someone sitting down in the front row.
"If you're in the front row, or you've got to duck underneath the railing or raise up above the railing, the front row's not a good seat anymore," said Hargis, who doesn't see a lot of benefit in raising the railings.
But that's not the opinion of Cheri Springstube, who can't bring herself to return to Miller Park or to remove her husband's voice from her home answering machine. She said there are more important things than a clear view of the field.
"Is it worth the cost of a life? They can come up with something, make them thinner, something," she said. "I'd rather be safe than worry about my view being obstructed."
Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.