By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber hits the ball harder and faster than anybody in baseball right now.
MLB Statcast cameras track exit velocity of balls off the bat, and his average of 96.6 mph is second to only Giancarlo Stanton’s 98.7. Since the Marlins’ slugger is on the disabled list, Schwarber reigns as the current king of measured explosiveness.
And if you happen to be seated near the field and one of Schwarber’s missiles finds your head in a fraction of a second, Cubs manager Joe Maddon says that’s your fault for sitting there.
“Pay attention,” Maddon said when asked about the fan who was struck by Schwarber’s foul liner Sunday. “I hate to say, but those are wonderful seats. You paid a lot of money for them, the fact that you’re right there. I watch and you see people turning their back to the field. You just can’t do it.”
Maddon was asked directly about the possibility of protective netting but declined to endorse that option, instead doubling down on his point.
“When you are at the ballpark and you are in those particular locations, watch what’s going on,” he said. “Every time a ball is pitched, you look. That’s probably the best answer, just pay attention.”
It’s not the best answer. Far from it, actually.
There are many things wrong with Maddon’s logic in this particular instance, but let’s start with the presumption that a fan in that seat – just above field level behind the rolled-up tarp – is indeed paying rapt attention to the action.
To estimate conservatively, the seat is approximately 120 feet away from the point where the bat makes contact with the ball. Using Schwarber’s average hit speed of 96.6 allows us to assign a much higher likely velocity of that particular foul liner, pulled fully off the sweet spot. Statcast’s hardest-hit fair balls this year have averaged around 117 mph, and it’s possible this one was considerably faster, but we will use 115 mph as a fair calculation.
That means the ball was traveling at 169 feet per second. That fan would then have seven-tenths of a second before impact to recognize the perilous trajectory and then … what?
Here’s what’s worse when we apply Maddon’s instructions, playing out the actual possibilities for the theoretically-attentive onlooker. Is the fan expected to duck out of the way? In that case, he or she exposes whoever is seated behind, who has no such slim opportunity to dive for safety. Imagine that secondarily exposed target is an elderly woman glancing at her scorecard or a child protected by nothing more than the cotton candy in front of his face.
Or is Maddon thinking that the fan in the expensive seats ready for anything and hanging on every pitch also has the combination of cat-quick reflexes and superhuman pain tolerance to make a play on that ball? In all seriousness, does he actually believe the person in that seat should snag that shot out of the air barehanded? Or take one for the team and just absorb the impact, as if wearing a mask and chest-protector or padded up like an NHL goalie?
His casual admonition to “pay attention,” then, does nothing to address the issue.
Big league infielders themselves have a hard enough time fielding drives like that one, and the middle-aged base coaches nearby are often sent reeling or ducking reflexively. You’ll notice that coaches wear helmets, ever since Rockies’ doube-A first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh was killed by a foul ball in 2007. The response was considerably more careful and thoughtful than, say, telling coaches to, “Watch what’s going on.”
Foul territory is shrinking, too, with teams recognizing the value of more seats closer than ever to the action. Players always seat their own families behind the plate, however, because that’s where the netting is. Their union has been trying in vain to negotiate more protection for fans, since the rank and file wants to be done with the sick feeling of knowing each next swing could kill a fan.
The idea of avoiding distraction at a modern baseball game is laughable, also, in and of itself. It probably has been some time since Maddon has hung out at a game as a fan, or else he’d realize that the massive video boards and team-sponsored smartphone apps are competing for eyes and ears as much as the vendors hawking beer and hot dogs.
It’s hard to give yourself that half a second to not die when you’re following the just-posted instructions to use your tablet to vote the local favorites into the All-Star Game.
This isn’t to paint Maddon as some callous soul, dismissing safety concerns because he doesn’t care about fans. It’s a postgame press conference, and he’s trying to say what sounds like the right thing, even though it fails to withstand more rigorous examination.
He’s a manager falling back on what has long been said after such frightening incidents, not really considering the specific impossibilities of his solution to problem that’s not going away.