Leader Blues

Friday, April 02, 2010

SPORTS >> Fans need to keep eyes on the ball, too

Leader sports editor

The person who said baseball is a funny game probably was never hit by a foul ball the way Denard Span’s mother was on Wednesday.

And it’s a safe bet Span, an outfielder with the Minnesota Twins, wasn’t laughing either, since he was the one who hit the foul that struck his mother as she sat in the third-base stands during a spring training game with the New York Yankees in Tampa, Fla.

Put the whole mishap down in the “funny-strange” category, because foul balls aren’t necessarily a laughing matter.

Span led off the game and sliced a pitch from Phil Hughes into the seats behind the dugout, hitting his mother Wanda Wilson in the chest as she sat wearing her son’s jersey. Span dropped everything to run to his mother’s side while paramedics treated Wilson, then Span returned to the plate to strike out.

Fortunately Wilson was unhurt, save for some soreness, but the odd set of circumstances serves not only as a reminder of baseball’s unpredictable nature, but of its hidden dangers too.

I’m not here to take all the fun out of a season I enjoy so much, but folks, if you think the case of Span hitting his mother is just a freak thing, think again.

When I read the story I immediately recalled an Arkansas Travelers-Wichita Wranglers game at old Ray Winder Field on July 3, 2003.

Wranglers pitcher Wes Wilkerson came on to relieve Eric Thompson and try to hold a two-run Wichita lead to start the seventh inning. Wilkerson got through the seventh and retired two in the eighth before Travelers hitter Jake Webber sliced a pitch foul into the third-base seats next to the visitors dugout.

The ball struck a woman in the shoulder and glanced up to hit her in the eye. Like Span, Wilkerson sprinted from the field to check on the woman, and it wasn’t just chivalry in Wilkerson’s case either.

The woman was Wilkerson’s sister, Stacy Chmielewski, who had traveled from Nashville to see her brother pitch for the first time that season. Like Span, who left after three innings Wednesday, Wilkerson was too rattled to finish the game, though Chmielewski ended up being fine, other than having a bruise on her cheek.

“She was like, well, you got me back for all the several things that she did to me when I was younger,” Wilkerson said. “But overall I was glad she was all right.”

Another foul ball ended in a history-making tragedy during a game between the Travelers and Tulsa Drillers at Dickey-Stephens Park on July 22, 2007.

Tulsa’s Tino Sanchez ripped a Bill Edward’s pitch foul, and the ball struck Tulsa first-base/hitting coach Mike Coolbaugh in the neck. The resulting trauma cost Coolbaugh his life, leaving his wife, who had a child on the way, a widow and Coolbaugh’s young son fatherless.

A multitude of coincidences, many of them detailed in Scott Price’s excellent book “Heart of the Game” put Coolbaugh in harm’s way.

The Colorado Rockies had only recently hired Coolbaugh and assigned him to Tulsa, after the Drillers’ original coach couldn’t complete his duties, and Sanchez had been serving as the de facto hitting coach in the meantime. Perhaps most sad, most bittersweet, was the fact Sanchez, Edwards and Coolbaugh were all expecting children at the time of the tragedy.

Major League Baseball, so slow in so many cases to embrace change, swiftly mandated all major and minor league base coaches wear helmets, though such a helmet would not have saved Coolbaugh.

But at least the pro game was trying to take action to prevent further tragedies. There are no such precautions at high school or youth fields, where coaches relax on folding chairs and spit sunflower seeds in foul ground while aluminum bats increase the danger of hard-hit stray balls.

But at least the coaches and players have their heads in the game and a fighting chance to get out of the way of an errant drive. What of the unsuspecting fans?

While the episodes detailed in this space are extreme examples of what can go wrong at a ballgame, the fact is, paying customers get hit with fouls or broken, flying bats every year.

Tickets carry disclaimers and ballparks post warnings to decrease injury liability, but that is no protection for the fan in the beer garden more interested in a young lady’s short skirt or the mother in the stands trying to wipe mustard off her child’s face.

So please, have a great time at the ballpark this year. I insist. But when the umpire shouts, “play ball,” remember two other, equally important words.

“Heads up.”