Next time you see a ball rocketing your way at the new Camden Yards ballpark, you'd better duck because the courts won't be there to back you.
A body of legal precedent that dates to British common law and cricket matches says that fans take their chances when they attend baseball games and usually can't sue when they get hit by balls, according to a specialist.
The issue is certain to be on the minds of fans this year because the new ballpark features seats as close to the action as in almost any stadium in the country. First and third bases are 45 feet from the front row, about 20 feet closer than at Memorial Stadium.
The designers were seeking intimacy, while reducing the number of games decided by balls caught in foul territory.
"We tried not to make it ridiculous so that every ball goes into the stands and is unfair to the pitcher, but in keeping with the old-time ballpark design, we put the seats closer to the field," said team spokesman Bob Miller.
Most new stadiums are being designed this way, in part because of Major League Baseball's pressure for baseball-only stadiums, he said.
The team and stadium management have taken some precautions. Special orange signs were installed at Camden Yards, and messages are flashed on the scoreboard reminding fans to beware of foul balls.
For the fans, the closer seats mean not only better views, but also slightly greater danger of getting conked by fouls.
"This is one of the earliest areas of sports law," said Glenn Wong, co-author of "Law and Business of the Sports Industries" and director of the Sports Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
He said a number of important cases were settled in the early 1900s that greatly limited the liability of stadium operators for injuries during the normal course of a game.
The Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in 1913 that the Kansas City Baseball & Exhibition Co. was "not insurers of the safety of spectators."
Although the team was required to exercise "reasonable care" to prevent accidents, it was not necessary to screen off all the seats to keep balls away, the court ruled.
"In view of the fact that the general public is invited to attend these games, that hard balls are thrown and batted with great force and swiftness, and that such balls often go in the direction of the spectators . . .," the team was only required to provide some screened-in seats for fans who wanted the protection, the court wrote.
At issue is a "common knowledge" rule, Wong said. In short, it says that because baseball is a national pastime, and that the danger of being hit by a ball is common knowledge, fans must be aware of it when they buy a ticket, he said.
The same rule may not apply, however, to lesser-known sports, he said.
Also, teams have been held liable when the unusual occurs, such as a player jumping into the stands to retaliate against a jeering fan or a player throwing a ball into the stands out of anger, he said.
A team must also meet industry standards in the design of screens and architecture of the park, he said. And screens and other protective devices must be properly maintained, he said.