When a Colorado Springs Sky Sox player hits a pitch out of Security Service Field these days, the home crowd cheers the home run, but the celebration is no longer punctuated by the percussive "boom" of a fireworks shell. That bit of fanfare has been missing from the minor-league ballpark since May of last year, when Sky Sox marketing director and trained pyrotechnician Rai Henniger was hit in the face by a spherical titanium shell that accidentally launched from its mortar tube as he was going through his pregame rigging regimen. The shell never detonated, but the blunt-force trauma alone cost Henniger his nose and left eye - and nearly his life. Only the quick response of the Sky Sox groundskeeper and two Iraq War veterans on hand for that night's game kept a still-conscious Henniger from bleeding to death on the ground behind the left-field scoreboard.
The nexus of live sports and live entertainment is perhaps best illuminated by the now ubiquitous use of fireworks and other pyrotechnic special effects. In March, at the ultimate intersection of athleticism and spectacle, World Wrestling Entertainment's annual WrestleMania took place at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla. With the inferno-like finale in full swing, a cable designed to send sparks-emitting rockets from the stadium's upper deck toward the field-level stage snapped, causing white-hot material to drop into the crowd. Forty-five people were injured, including three who required hospital treatment.
In May, NBA commissioner David Stern described the player introductions that accompanied 2008 playoff games as "ridiculous." In Cleveland, flames shot out of the center-hung scoreboard with such intensity that fans seated courtside could feel the heat. "I think that the noise, the fire, the smoke, is a kind of assault that we should seriously consider reviewing in whether it's really necessary given the quality of our game," Stern said.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich followed up Stern's comments with his own stern warning. "Every time I'm at a place where they do pyrotechnics, I just tell myself there's going to be an accident. It's like the stop sign that doesn't get put up until a kid gets killed," Popovich said. "With all that fire and explosive material, and there's kids, people, cheerleaders all over the place, something's going to happen."
At least two Cleveland players - Ben Wallace and Delonte West - avoided pregame shows during the playoffs for fear the resulting smoke might aggravate existing health conditions. Meanwhile, at least one fan, at PistonPost.com, hoped to gather enough signatures to send a petition to Stern this off-season asking him not to extinguish "these magnificent works of fire."
Such pyromania has indeed created a $1 billion industry in the United States. According to American Pyrotechnic Association statistics, domestic consumption of fireworks has risen from 29 million pounds in 1976 to more than 278.2 million pounds in 2006. (Over that same period, the APA claims, the fireworks-related injury rate has dropped from 38.3 to 3.3 per 100,000 pounds.)
The explosion, if you will, of pyrotechnic use in sports is a direct result of the products' improved quality, according to APA executive director Julie Heckman. "Indoor pyrotechnics is huge," Heckman says. "It really took off in the early 1990s, and now it's incorporated into just about any type of sporting event."
As the Sky Sox incident demonstrates, accidents happen even when trained professionals are in charge. A fireworks display in high winds at an Oakland A's game in May 2003 set fire to a tarp used to cover seats in Network Associates Coliseum. On-site pyrotechnicians doused the blaze before firefighters arrived, and no one was hurt. "I've been working in this industry for 20 years, and often when I hear people say they are a trained pyrotechnician, their training is not up to snuff," Heckman says. "There are state-by-state regulations, and some states are more stringent than others." Few professionals are ever injured, Heckman says, but when asked if human error is usually to blame in pyrotechnic mishaps, she adds, "There is the possibility that you could have something that is not foreseen - one mortar that doesn't launch properly - but it's very rare. Still, when dealing with energetic materials, you're always taking some risk."
"The level of safety and forethought among arena managers and game presentation directors is extremely high," says Jon Cudo, vice president of Mark Out Productions, a Lakewood, Ohio-based game entertainment provider. "People know that this is something that has an inherent danger, so you'll find a lot of people erring on the side of safety."
May 9 was to be the first Friday night post-game fireworks show of the season at Security Service Field, but 20-mile-per-hour winds prompted the third-party firm that now handles such displays for the Sky Sox, as well as the local fire marshal, to cancel the team's bread-and-butter promotion. Post-game fireworks are still an important part of the atmosphere at the ballpark (the Fourth of July game, if played at home, typically sets a season's single-game attendance benchmark), but the in-game blast is a thing of the past. "I don't envision us ever doing it again," says Sky Sox assistant general manager Mike Hobson. "Obviously, the reasons for us are very specific. To go back to it after what happened to one of our own just doesn't make any sense. Even if it were completely outsourced and we were given 100 percent assurance that there would never be an accident again, I don't know that we would do it, just because every time we heard that 'thump' we would be thinking of what happened to Rai."