The only ticket Jordan Skopp could secure for a 2006 National League Championship Series game between the Cardinals and Mets at Shea Stadium was four rows from the field. He couldn't help but wonder if others in his seating section (Jerry Seinfeld among them) were as nervous as he was — not about the game's outcome, but whether he would emerge from the stadium that night uninjured. Skopp has since embarked on a mission to rid professional ballparks of all risk of foul ball injury, arguing that extended netting doesn't go far enough. As founder of Foul Ball Safety Now!, he has launched a website of the same name, surveyed parks to assess netting configurations, hosted several online press conferences and written 70,000 words (so far) of a book he hopes to publish this summer. AB senior editor Paul Steinbach connected with Skopp, a New York-licensed real estate broker, on the eve of his seventh conference — which included appearances by injury survivors Alexis Hoskey, Tracy Nabors and Stephanie Wapenski, as well as Erwin Goldbloom, widower of fatal foul ball victim Linda Goldbloom, and ESPN producer Willie Weinbaum — to assess progress made.
What inspired you to take up this cause?
Being at games and seeing balls go into the seats and just kind of feeling like we can do better. Why are we continually at risk of foul balls? Why can't it be where we can basically have a place where nobody should be seriously injured? It is part of the game, unfortunately. It's not a matter of if someone is seriously hurt, it's when.
How serious is the problem?
The minor league report that I came out with shows that 42 of the nearly 100 minor league ballparks that I connected with over the past few weeks did not have netting past the dugouts, and unfortunately things are getting crushed at the end of the dugouts. You saw the beer can video of the explosion in Arizona a few weeks back at spring training. It was an incident that got a lot of write-ups — usually in a comical way, and not a serious way. An Angels player hit the can, exploded the can, and it was beyond the end of the dugout. I did a survey of spring training and found out that four ballparks in Arizona had no netting beyond the dugout, and then a few weeks later in one of the four ballparks, it happened — the first incident of 2021, where something got crushed. Fortunately, it wasn't a human being. So that was our first reminder, three weeks into spring training. What's going to happen in the minor leagues? Now it's not just four ballparks without netting past the dugouts, it's 42. I'm suggesting that no children be allowed in any of those 42 ballparks until the federal government steps in.
Who are you calling on to enforce such a position?
I may write all of the 40-something governors. I did write letters to the governors of Florida and Arizona, putting them on notice, prior to the beer can crushing. I said to them, "All the games are beginning in March in Florida and Arizona. Please send your people down and make sure all of these ballparks are maiming-free." I need to know — we need to know as a baseball society — that inside these walls, inside these ballparks, they're maiming-free. I think we can get there. We need like a certificate of occupancy for buildings — talking real estate, right? We need to know. There should be a sign hung in every building that says, "No maiming in this ballpark." I don't know what's permissible or what isn't. That's beyond my pay grade. But there should be some sort of community that says, "It's okay for children to sit here. It's not okay for children to sit there. Adults can sit there, but no way can they bring their kids. They need to sign some sort of waiver." It's like seatbelts. Fortunately, parents can't make the call. They have to put their kids in seatbelts. And parents should not have the discretion whether they should be allowed to bring their kids into places where something could seriously go wrong.
FiveThirtyEight charted foul balls and found less than half were followed by a camera to where they landed. Is there a reason for that?
I think anyone who's having an honest discussion with you will tell you that baseball doesn't send the sideline reporter down to that section where the screamer has gone to see if everyone's okay. It's a problem. My thought is that Major League Baseball is strongly suggesting to the networks, "Don't show the graphic of the ball screaming into the seats and the reaction of the fans." Whether it's a beer that spilled or the human reaction — even if they're laughing. It's like they're laughing out of relief. No one was hurt. They don't want to show you any of that. I believe these 42 minor league ballparks opening, these four Arizona ballparks in spring training — so 46 ballparks — it's equivalent to them opening a carnival ride without a permit or a license or having an unfenced pool next to a playground.
Is MLB doing enough?
Baseball had been working under the same conditions really up until 2015, 2016, before there were nets over the dugouts. And with this piecemeal approach they've been doing — a little bit here, a little bit there — on the major league level, we really don't know. Mrs. Goldbloom died at Dodger Stadium in 2018. The Dodgers took a year to elevate the nets behind home plate. Are 93-mile-an-hour balls still flying behind home plate in 29 out of 30 stadiums? You can look at my major league report. It wasn't a six-month report. It was me working for a week or two, calling all the box offices. The general public is still not really inquiring about where the nets are. They're not really suspicious of the fact that kids could be in a situation. If the fans demanded it, all the team websites would be fully transparent as to how high the nets are, where the nets are, where children could be sitting, guidelines to follow. They've all been operating without a license for 100 years. And Minor League Baseball continues. I guess they didn't get the memo, or Major League Baseball doesn't feel the moral imperative to take care of the minor leagues. Why shouldn't they? Bottom line is the Baltimore Orioles have three or four affiliates, and the minor league affiliates don't have netting. You should be taking care of those fans.
You mention 100 years. The Baseball Rule has been tort law since 1913. Do you think assumption of risk by fans is a well-grounded legal principal on which teams have avoided liability all these years?
First of all, if they ever put that micro-print up on the scoreboard, where people would actually recognize it, fans would be like, "Why are we sitting here, if there's a chance we may be hit with a foul ball?" It's small print that people can barely see, and now with e-tickets, they really have to search for it. If they ever put it up in large print, people would be running to customer service, because you would see families ostracized by other families. "How could you be sitting there with your children? We're sitting here in a safe place." The goal in all of this is to bring the epiphany to the fans that, "You mean, I used to go to games with my kids, and they were 4 and 6 years old, and we were basically sitting ducks in a shooting gallery all along?" Yeah, you were. How do you feel now? That's ultimately what I want to do. And you know who knew this? Baseball knew this. They're the only ones who knew the data. They're like Big Tobacco. They're no different. They have not been transparent. They know the data and it's never come out. The Baseball Rule, any time it's ever gotten to court, it's never gotten to discovery, where all that data would have to be revealed. That's when baseball, in a few instances, has made settlements, because baseball does not want to see the day when a judge in a state, says, "Okay, let's see what they knew." They'll make a settlement. Major League Baseball knows how risky it's been, and that's why it's a dishonest organization.
Obviously, we're not where you think baseball should be, but in December 2019 MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced that every team would extend netting "substantially beyond the dugout." Seven or eight stadiums at that time were expected to extend netting to the foul poles. Do we know how many stadiums have actually done that?
If you look at my major league report on my website, it will give you indication of what I learned. It doesn't reveal much. It's me making a contribution, trying to illustrate what I learned in the major league report. It wasn't much, but it was more than was provided by anyone else, I can tell you that. There are maybe a couple of teams that moved the netting a little bit farther down. Did any of them elevate behind home plate? Only one out of the 30 teams indicated how high their nets were. Only three out of the 30 teams had any kind of map seating chart of the nets — where they were. Manfred said something in 2019. Well, certainly the minor leagues didn't get the memo, because 42 of those ballparks in the minor leagues clearly still have netting that does not pass the dugout.
What was the impetus for MLB to at least start paying more attention to netting?
NBC reported that from 2012 to 2019, in only four ballparks, 707 people got injured by foul balls, plus 100 miscellaneous injuries. The NBC report implies that from 2012 to 2019 around 5,000 people reported to first aid over eight years. They only got data from four clubs, because the other 26 did not supply the data. It's 175 per club — times four is around 700. Well, just do the math, and it will tell you the other 26, using the same kind of equation, would be around 5,000 over eight years. I'm not saying they were all maimed, but they certainly went there with a finger issue or for getting hit with a ball somewhere.
Have you had direct contact with Manfred?
No. They don't really respond to the media. When you call Major League Baseball offices, they still give that stock response from 2019. It's not like anyone there really deals with the foul ball issue. They don't want the day coming when a judge says, "Where's the discovery?" That's the only time you'll ever really get their attention. They're not ready to answer the question today about netting. "What about 42 minor league cities that Skopp has discovered don't have netting past the dugout?" Good luck in getting an answer from them.
Do you have any thoughts on ballpark design and what role that could play in terms of putting fans in a safer place?
I really don't know how to answer that. It's more about, "Hey, they built these ballparks. Now, make them maiming-free for everyone." If it requires the nets, then that's what it requires. Wrigley's had so many people who have been injured. Illinois is a hotbed for lawsuits when it comes to that. It's interesting, you bring up facilities. I don't know who the netting contractors take their marching orders from when they actually do install netting in minor league ballparks. Two identical ballparks with the same dimensions, and one says, "Alright, take it to the end of the dugout," and the other place says, "Do it all the way down to the foul pole." The contractor probably knows that the fans of the client who didn't put in more netting are probably getting an inferior product.
In your press outreach, you call this a scandal. Why?
I'm revealing that 42 minor league ballparks fall way short of what Manfred implied in 2019 about significant improvement, so I think that's a scandal — putting out a false sense of security in 2019. I think that they hit the ball 110 miles per hour in the major leagues. They still hit it 106 in the minor leagues. I don't get where the difference would be. It's a professional game. I have minor leaguers who are in my book who agonize going to work knowing that it's not a matter of if somebody will be maimed, it's when.
Can you give us a preview of the book?
It's a good story. I have a whole chapter on what I call the Baseball Industrial Complex. Why aren't they showing video? Because the producers are told not to show it. They don't want to get the customer nervous at home watching on TV. They're not focusing on the injury. I'm mad at the baseball writers and the broadcasters for not being honest about it. Baseball players tell their own families not to sit in certain sections, and they swear by it. But what about the broadcasters and the baseball writers? I believe they privately do the same. They certainly don't convey in conversation over the TV and you probably don't read it that much in the local sports column. They don't want to upset the client. Baseball is the client. They're the top of the food chain, and below that you have broadcasters and publishers. And maybe baseball, the client, tells broadcasters and publishers, "Don't focus on foul balls. It's going to cost us money. People are not going to want to come to the game. They're not going to buy merchandise. They're not going to buy beer." So basically you have a history of intoxicating customers. What's a couple of maimings in 2019? "Guys, it was only 15 people maimed. It's no big deal. It's a 26-and-a-half-week season." Basically, that's what's in their portfolio, and they're fine with it. Fifteen people being maimed in 2019 out of 70 million fans is no big deal to them, but it is a big deal when you find out that it could have been you.
Do you have anything good to say about Manfred's efforts?
No. Not until they bring in an agency. Look at what ESPN's Jeff Passan said. Shortly after the little girl got hurt in Houston in 2019 by [Chicago Cub Albert] Almora, he said the feds need to come in. If the feds come in, that would create an independent safety netting council. He went on PBS and "The Dan Patrick Show," and if he had kept on saying what he said then, there would have been a wave of other reporters and announcers. I have two ESPN announcers who revealed to me their true feelings, and they're in the book. We're all human. We've just all been keeping this under lock and key. Why aren't the cameras showing the ball landing? You saw the screamer go. You saw the reaction of the player a little bit — the cameras can't hide everything. Or you saw the squinting of the people from behind home plate — squinting from what they noticed down the line. It's by design. I spoke to a FOX camera guy — he's in my book — who found me after one of my first virtual calls a couple months ago, and he went on the record. The two ESPN guys also went on the record. They're not even going to be anonymous. I even have minor leaguers on the record who tell me they're in agony and they dread going to work and they scream at mom and dad if they don't sit behind the nets. That's how they feel. They know they're in a community that will maim people. They can't get on the public address and tell everybody. We're just scratching the surface here. It is the Baseball Industrial Complex. They've been protected by the Baseball Rule. And they know the data. And they know that maiming was going to be part of their day-to-day business. And that's why they deserve no points — no points. I'm going to get this message out through art and creation of exhibit and storytelling that clearly shows that baseball is just like Big Tobacco. They get no credit for being like Big Tobacco.
What would get you to sleep at night?
I need to know that an independent safety netting council came in and hung a sign in that ballpark that says, "This ballpark is maiming-free."
But what's it going to take to hang that sign?
It's going to take a visit from an independent safety netting council to determine this is where it's okay to sit, this is where it's not okay to sit. We need somebody above my pay grade to come in and say, "I got it. We know that balls fly in this direction, this fast. Okay. Inappropriate for children here." Something needs to hang in every ballpark.
How effective do you think you've been to date?
I think I'm moving the needle a little bit. I think this issue has been advocacy-free up until this point, and I'm trying to maintain some sort of effective advocacy. I'm bringing the epiphany to the people. I'm hiring artists. I have illustrators. I have a lawyer. It's time to get the point across. Nobody's interested in bringing the epiphany to the fans, so I'm going to bring it to them.
An excerpt of this interview appears in the June 2021 issue of Athletic Business with the title "A fan faces down professional baseball’s foul ball problem." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.