Tracy Nabors, a Willis High School English teacher whose jaw was broken in three places, lost multiple teeth and is still dealing with chronic pain and steep medical expenses after she was hit by a foul ball during batting practice at an Astros game on June 14, 2019, doesn’t like to talk about what happened to her that day.
After she spoke with ABC13 for a brief TV segment about her injury in July 2019, Nabors was shocked by the startling number of Astros fans who commented on social media that it was her own fault she got injured for not paying enough attention to her surroundings, who railed against expanding safety netting at games because it would allegedly hurt the ballpark experience by making it harder for fans to catch stray balls and to get autographs from players.
That backlash made Nabors wary of speaking publicly about what happened to her. But in September 2020, after she saw the Philadelphia Phillies were offering prizes to fans whose cardboard cutout stand-ins were hit with stray balls during that team’s fanless pandemic season, she was furious about what she viewed as a callous marketing stunt that made light of the pain of ballpark accident victims like her. She wrote a message to the Phillies and told herself that she would speak publicly about her accident if she was ever asked again.
Nabors did just that on April 29, when she joined fellow victims of foul balls at MLB games in a virtual press conference organized by Foul Ball Safety Now, an advocacy group trying to raise awareness of the MLB’s lack of transparency around accidents caused by foul balls and the lack of league-wide standards for netting at both major and minor league ballparks.
“I had nightmares for months after, nightmares where I’d wake up and all my teeth were gone and there was blood in the bed,” Nabors said at the press conference. “Every time I walk past an Astros shirt, I’m reminded of it daily. And I’m still in a lot of pain. I hide it well, I put on a smile, but my teeth hurt. I’ve already lost two [and] there’s quite a bit of nerve damage in the front that they’re watching to see what happens.”
Nabors, whose jaw was wired shut for almost 10 weeks due to her incident, is glad that the Astros and other teams have extended their safety netting in recent years. But she still thinks the MLB hasn’t done enough to warn fans about the safety risk of errant balls at games, and is frustrated that the Astros haven’t contacted her over the past 18 months after the team’s risk management director hinted the Astros may have been considering helping her with her medical bills.
“I just think they need to do the right thing, and not just the Astros, baseball in general,” Nabors told the Houston Press. “They just need to do the right thing, and they need to reach out to all these families who are still paying bills.”
The Astros extended the safety netting at Minute Maid Park in August 2019 and the team’s local minor league affiliate, the Sugar Land Skeeters, has safety netting along the entire seat line at its ballpark according to its website.
The Astros declined to comment when asked by the Press about its safety netting at Minute Maid Park and the Sugar Land Skeeters’ ballpark. The team also declined to answer questions from the Press about Nabors’ accident and whether the organization had ever discussed helping Nabors pay for her medical bills, which she expects will soon amount to over $20,000.
Her boyfriend Kyle Henriksen doesn’t think the Astros extended Minute Maid Park’s safety netting because of her incident, but due to the intense media scrutiny that followed after a two-year-old girl was struck by a foul ball during an Astros game on May 29, 2019.
Unlike when Nabors was hit during pre-game batting practice, the young girl’s accident was captured live on camera during the game, quickly igniting a firestorm of controversy and a renewed national debate about foul ball nets at ballparks. An attorney for the girl’s family said her skull was fractured by the ball and that she suffered permanent brain damage because of the accident.
Despite the uproar over that case, the Astros didn’t install additional netting until over two months later. If the team would have added the extra netting sooner, Nabors believes she would have been spared the years of pain and medical bills that came from her injury.
Both Nabors and the young girl were sitting along the third base line at Minute Maid Park when they were hit by foul balls, past the safety netting which at that time only extended to the end of each team’s dugout. Since its expansion in 2019, Minute Maid Park’s netting spans past first and third bases and into the outfield, just shy of the foul poles.
In a statement issued after the Astros expanded its netting in 2019, the team said that "Fan experience is always a top priority for the Astros.
“The Astros have followed Major League Baseball's guidelines regarding netting while providing fans with a choice as to whether they sit in areas with or without protective netting,” the statement continued.” These changes will improve the fan's experience and increase the number of seats behind protective netting. Fans will continue to have the option to sit in areas without netting."
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced in December of 2019 that every team in the league would extend its foul ball netting to cover more seats before the 2020-21 season. That said, MLB still hasn’t put in place any sort of uniform standard for just how far netting must extend at its stadiums, claiming that the unique architecture of each ballpark makes that impossible.
It’s difficult to quantify how many fans have been hurt by foul balls since MLB teams don’t provide statistics on those incidents at their ballparks. An NBC News investigation in the fall of 2019 found reports of 808 people who had been injured by baseballs at MLB stadiums between 2012 and 2019. A 2014 Bloomberg report estimated that around 1,750 fans are injured by foul balls each year.
Right before she was hit by the foul ball, Nabors was walking back to her seat from the concession stand as the visiting Toronto Blue Jays were in the middle of batting practice. She was clutching the railing in one hand and a $9 Coke in her other — the overpriced soda is the only memory of the day that makes her laugh. Nabors wasn’t looking at her cell phone, as some Astros fans less-than-politely assumed on social media.
“As soon as I got to our row, and was just sitting down, that’s all I remember,” Nabors said of the moment the foul ball struck her jaw. She said the folks around her started passing down napkins, and a concerned Blue Jays fan giving her his blue and white rally towel. “He handed that over because I was spitting out teeth and swallowing teeth, and there was blood. That’s kind of the first thing I remember, was that person giving me that towel.”
“There was a policeman and a paramedic who helped get me up to the stairs and in a wheelchair. They got me to the little medical area there, and the risk management person was there immediately,” Nabors said. “And she was calling while I was in the hospital getting stitches and being told that my jaw was fractured in three places.”
After Nabors had her jaw un-wired after almost 10 weeks, she was still stuck on a soft-food diet for over six months afterward. She’s lost two teeth so far, and still needs to eventually get crowns on two others that were damaged in the accident. Nabors hasn’t been to a baseball game since, and said she has to leave the room if there’s a game being played on TV when she's around.
The team eventually sent her a baseball signed by Astros star Carlos Correa, and Monica Rusch, Senior Director of Risk Management for the Astros, stayed in contact with Nabors and her then-boyfriend Rick Barker in the weeks and months that followed Nabors’s accident. Rusch asked Nabors to send in copies of her medical bills and insurance paperwork documenting all the procedures she needed after her injury. Nabors thought that meant the team might potentially offer to help pay for her medical expenses.
“Thank you for reviewing this. This has been a very difficult few months,” Nabors wrote in an October 18, 2019 email to Rusch that included her latest dental expenses. “I am a teacher (so I’m not bringing in tons of money), and I am raising my daughter who is a senior.”
“This is a very expensive year for us,” Nabors continued. “I have no interest in contacting an attorney; I am just asking for help with the medical expenses.”
“Bills received and are under review,” Rusch responded via email on November 15, 2019, which Nabors said was the last time anyone from the Astros reached out to her about the accident.
“I just feel like I don’t matter, and I don’t to them. I’m just another number, another statistic, I get it. But I am a person,” Nabors said. Expanding safety netting is a step “in the right direction,” she said, but it’ll take more than that to convince Nabors that the team truly cares about its fans.
“Putting up the netting after several people have been hurt, that’s just covering your hiney,” she said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know another way to put it.”
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