Let’s Go Bucs

160307-flying-pirates-baseball-bat-save-mdl-1232p_367647d5193b82da0fabe0deb88df089.nbcnews-fp-1200-800During a March 5, 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates/Atlanta Braves exhibition game at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, FL, Danny Ortiz lost control of his bat.  As it flew into the stands, an observant father saw the bat coming toward his 8 year old son’s head.  He miraculously extended his arm to prevent what might have resulted in a potentially life threatening injury.  That’s one hell of an instinctual, real-time OODA loop.

Observe — There’s a wooden bat flying at us.
Orient — This is a dangerous predicament.  There isn’t sufficient time to get out of its way.  The bat must be stopped or deflected.
Decide — The best solution is to block it using my arm.
Act — Raises his arm and successfully mitigates the detrimental impact.

Well done. Nice job.

Judging from the picture, the boy seemed preoccupied with his smart phone.  Was he executing a stock trade?  Was he verifying dinner reservations at an upscale restaurant?  It’s really hard to say.  But whatever he was doing, I’m sure it was of tremendous importance.  In fact, if you take a look around the ballpark, he’s not the only attendee who seems distracted… staring downward into those tiny little screens.  Just turn on any MLB game and look at the fans behind home plate.

At any baseball game, at any level, there is a perceived element of danger.  Broken bats and foul balls.  This is such a routine problem that virtually every baseball organization issues both written warnings (on the back of ticket stubs) and verbal warnings (over the public address).  These statements are specifically designed to heighten fan situational awareness about the dangers posed by errant projectiles.  The standard disclaimer is also an attempt to limit liability and exposure to hypothetical litigation.  Think about what might happen if everyone who was ever hit by a foul ball decided to file a lawsuit.  You don’t need a crystal ball to realize that the sport itself would quickly disappear.

I often attend MLB games.  So let’s take a stroll down memory lane.

On May 5, 2015, I went to a Pirates/Reds game at PNC Park.  It afforded me the opportunity to have a discussion with their Director of Security Mark Weaver and some local Pittsburgh police officers in their command post adjacent to section 105.

In the past, Mr. Weaver and I have had multiple conversations about outdated emergency ballpark evacuation protocol.  He has demonstrated a “tepid willingness” to acknowledge some very challenging issues regarding venue security.  While I cannot personally speak on his behalf, I am certain my concerns have resonated.

The main dilemma here is incredibly generic in nature.  I’m worried about the modern, technological equivalent of someone shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.  Most fans fail to consider the notion that virtually everyone has an active miniature supercomputer in their possession.  When PNC Park is at maximum capacity, that’s roughly 40,000 cell phones.  The vast majority, smart phones. This “inconvenient truth” leaves everyone vulnerable to receiving deliberately false information (phony evac orders, bomb threats, social media rumors, wireless carrier hacks, opt-in notification abuse, bulk texts, spoofed messages, robo-calls, phishing scams, etc.).  If the hoax was convincing and decentralized, it could conceivably result in an unanticipated crowd dynamic — a spontaneous, mass self-evacuation, leading to a panic, resulting in an “artificially generated stampede.”

Weaver’s counter argument centered upon the notion that every fan wouldn’t be that stupid to fall for a hoax.  He also said, “By your logic, we should make a pre-safety announcement every time we launch fireworks.  What if people panic, mistaking the explosions for gunfire?”

Needless to say, I disagreed with that analogy.  I imagine he was playing devil’s advocate, but that particular line of reasoning was exceptionally weak.

I countered, “Considering the recurring game day vulnerability and the possibility of someone eventually testing the cracks in the system, wouldn’t it be the wiser course of action to devise a straightforward contingency plan?  In this case, just simply tell fans the truth.  This could be achieved through a 3 second looped message:

Official ballpark emergency evacuation orders would NEVER be delivered via your mobile device.

When an emergency evacuation is deemed absolutely necessary, protocol dictates using the public address system in tandem with the video monitors.  You do NOT play text messaging games with large, confined crowds.  No competent venue incident commander would ever attempt to deliver a “cellular” emergency evacuation order.  A. They wouldn’t  B. They shouldn’t.  C. They couldn’t.  This isn’t my opinion.  It’s the industry standard.  And it applies to other facilities as well… stadiums, amphitheaters, arenas, motor speedways, etc.  A clear, unified, all-encompassing directive is paramount.

Now Mr. Weaver is well aware of the underlying conflict, but is incredibly reluctant to take a proactive approach.  He refuses to address the underlying security disconnect.  And for obvious reasons I might add:

Plausible deniability.  In case there ever was an actual stampede, triggered by a saturation of wireless information, people would invariably ask, why didn’t anyone share this little snippet of common sense information?  Why didn’t anybody tell us that something like this could happen, or at the very least, be attempted?  Newsflash: It’s exceptionally difficult to hold people accountable for hypothetical outcomes. There’s a reason Sgt. Schultz (of Hogan’s Heroes fame) would often say… I see nothing!  I know nothing!

Foreseeable litigation.  If history is any indication, when things take a turn for the worse, people immediately seek out the “deep pockets” for punitive and compensatory damages.  In 2016, the average MLB team had a net worth of 1.2 billion dollars.

Lose-lose proposition.  From a monetary perspective, there’s nothing to be gained.  Other than preventing hypothetical injuries and loss of life, the prevailing attitude is “what’s in it for us?”   From a liability perspective, if nobody else is willing to volunteer unique information about venue safety then “why should we?”

And finally, it’s a tacit, voluntary admission that a specific scenario exists which could render a ballpark unsafe.  As you might expect, nobody wants to “go down that road.”

So back to our conversation.  At one point, I mentioned that I happened to know the Pirates owner Bob Nutting.  Everyone in the room was “smirkingly skeptical.”  I informed them that we had spoken several times and he actually agreed with my assessments.  He would say, “Eric, I agree with you but I don’t understand what you want ME to do about it.”  When I replied, “It’s easy.  You own the team.  Just tell people the truth with a 3 second message.”

Please be aware… that in the unlikely event of an emergency ballpark evacuation, the initial order would NEVER be officially delivered via your personal cell phone.

But Mr. Nutting remained intransigent.  I still don’t understand why this is MY problem?  Why should I be ultimately held responsible?  Evidently, we have different visions regarding accountability and liability.  Fair enough, I suppose.

But everyone was still leery of my claim that I personally knew their billionaire boss.  For them, this was the much bigger concern.  So I explained that my oldest brother AJ went to high school (Linsly Institute) with Mr. Baseball.  That Wheeling was a small town and you occasionally run into fellow residents.  That he was a patient of my father who had a local dermatological practice.  That Wheeling locals often referred to him as “Raccoon Bob” (in his youth, he was notorious for trying to befriend raccoons on Corliss Terrace in the Woodsdale section of town).  I even showed them my West Virginia drivers license.

At this point, everyone seemed to realize that I wasn’t making things up.  And they instantly became less patronizing and condescending.  Sensing the importance and the unusual nature of the conversation, all of them suddenly took an interest.  But one of the cops behaved differently.

“You might want to think twice before coming to another Pirates game and telling us how to do our jobs.”

Headstrong, belligerent, aggressive, likes to hear the sound of their own voice, needs to have the last word.  An authority figure on everything.  Even that which they know little about.  At one time or another, I think we’ve all had a conversation with this “type” of individual.

So just when I thought the conversation was gaining a little traction, the topic shifted to human stampedes.  Our friendly Pittsburgh police officer… “First off, fans aren’t allowed out of their seats while the game is in progress.”  Hmm, I wasn’t sure what to make of that statement.  He also interjected that “stampedes don’t happen in the United States.  They only happen at soccer games, where everyone’s drunk.”

When I informed him that stampedes are actually more prevalent at religious festivals (particularly in Saudi Arabia) he chuckingly muttered, “That’s because those sand-niggers pray to the wrong god.”  As you might expect, the room immediately froze and Mr. Weaver abruptly terminated our conversation.

I could further scrutinize the discussion.  But frankly, it was an absolute embarrassment.  And it would shed an atrocious spotlight on the absence of critical thinking skills.  Not to mention a pervasive display of arrogance and disrespect.  So I’ll just try to sum this all up.

Do you remember the young boy?  Playing with his smart phone?  Who almost got hit by the bat?  Let’s reflect on his predicament.

For the 2016 season, MLB issued new ballpark safety guidelines.  They’ve mandated an extension of the protective netting down the first and third base lines.  Now let’s be honest.  The problems posed by broken bats and foul balls have plagued Major League baseball since well before Bill Mazeroski won us game 7 in the 1960 World Series.  My point — this isn’t some brand new revelation in the realm of ballpark safety.

The world is not a static environment.  Variables are constantly changing.  And humanity needs to tweak and adjust itself in response to those variables.  It’s called an OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act).

Just like the presence of physical netting, society needs to realize the necessity for improvements in the world of “wireless netting.”  Fans are vulnerable and exposed because they’re being intentionally denied a heightened level of situational awareness.

People have a fundamental right to know…
that if they’re in a large, confined crowd and receive an emergency evacuation order and/or panic-inducing information from their cell phone or mobile device…
it’s almost certainly a malicious hoax designed to create an artificially generated stampede.

Forgive the stale pun, but the government and private industry need to “step up to the plate.”  This isn’t the 500 lb. elephant in the room.  It’s the 15,000 lb. Tyrannosaurus Rex at the Carnegie Science Center.

So will it be the Pittsburgh Pirates?  Call me a cynic.  But based on my personal experiences, I seriously doubt they’re willing to play ball.  I’m not even sure they’d know how.