Will tossing balls to fans get tossed?

A baseball fan's tragic death in Texas presents a dilemma for players and team officials.


Police and fans look over the railing where a fan fell from the stands during the second inning of a baseball game between the Texas Rangers and the Oakland Athletics, Thursday, July 7, 2011, in Arlington, Texas.

Photo: Jeffery Washington, Associated Press - Ap

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CHICAGO - From the moment the gates open at a ballpark, fans ask players for baseballs.

They ask for them during batting practice. They beg ball boys and girls for the balls that land in foul territory during the game. They call for the ball when the final out of an inning is made.

That tradition took a horrific turn Thursday when a 39-year-old fan, Shannon Stone, died after falling 20 feet from the stands while trying to catch a ball thrown by Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.

Stunned players, managers and league officials spent Friday trying to reconcile themselves to the idea that one of baseball's most innocent and intimate interactions with its fans could turn deadly.

John McHale Jr., Major League Baseball's executive vice president of administration, said there is no centralized process for overseeing safety at ballparks, but Stone's death may change that.

"I think the enormity of this tragedy requires we create a process, if there isn't one already," he said.

Twins players warming up for their game against the White Sox in Chicago said they understand the special allure that a souvenir ball holds for many fans.

"Fans want a baseball,'' said Twins lefthander Brian Duensing. "They want a souvenir. There's only so much yelling you can handle before you finally give in.''

Not giving up that baseball isn't a satisfying option, players say.

But the incident could make some players think twice before tossing a ball into the stands.

"When I heard about that, it just broke my heart,'' said Twins outfielder Ben Revere, "especially with the guy's son right there.

"Now I'm going to be really sure to hand the ball off or throw it really up there.''

The Twins already advise players before every season not to toss baseballs to fans in the stands, because of concerns about liability.

"The Twins encourage our players not to throw baseballs into the stands, either to a fan in the front row or deeper into a group," General Manager Bill Smith said. "Players at all levels are encouraged to hand the ball to a fan or give it to an usher to deliver to a fan."

Still, Twins players and coaches for years have lobbed balls into the stands, and the scene is repeated throughout the major leagues.

"Players have been giving baseballs to kids in the stands as long as we've been in the game,'' Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire said, "and baseball is always saying, 'Hey, you have to be careful with these things.' You know what? They are trying to do something nice and this happens, and it's sad and it's heartbreaking.''

The Twins didn't say whether the club would firm up the delivery of the preseason caution to players in light of the Texas fan's death.

Twins players weren't sure they could stick to handing baseballs to fans.

"Handing someone a ball or handing the ball to an usher and having them deliver it seems like it's almost defeating the purpose,'' Duensing said. "Seeing what happened, I definitely think it [a toss into the crowd] is going to go at least 10 rows deep so you don't have people reaching over and stuff.''

Hamilton, the Rangers player whose ball toss led to Thursday's fatal accident, spoke to reporters Friday and said that players should still give baseballs to fans.

"That's what the game's all about,'' he said. "The fans come. They pay to see you play. They want to have a good experience at the ballpark. With player interaction, that's part of a good experience."

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