ATLANTA — Dugouts alongside Colquitt County High's baseball field were designed like many others, with an open front giving players an unobstructed view of the field.

The appeal of that vantage diminished quickly in March, the moment an overthrown ball flew past a first baseman and struck an unsuspecting player in the visitor’s dugout.

Colton Shaw, 14, who played for Valdosta High School's junior varsity, died at a Florida hospital the next day. The medical examiner is still investigating the case.

Such incidents are rare, if not unprecedented, and word spread quickly. Colquitt County had temporary netting in place by the next game. Other schools in south Georgia and the Florida panhandle installed similar barriers to shield players from hazards.

Now, what those schools did voluntarily could become mandatory. Rep. Dexter Sharper, D-Valdosta, wants to require enclosed dugouts for all school and public ballfields in Georgia.

A one-page bill, lined up for the Legislature to consider next January, requires that dugouts be “fenced in overhead and on all sides." A door must stay shut unless someone is entering or exiting.

That layer of protection was never a consideration before the accident in Moultrie on March 25, but afterwards its necessity was clear, said Kevin Giddens, athletic director of Colquitt County High.

“This touched a lot of people,” he said. “It was just a really tough deal the whole way around.

“But there’s good coming out of this. It has made everyone aware of something you never thought in a million years would happen. Now we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Giddens said.

By Sharper's standards, even the modified dugout arrangements now at Colquitt County and other schools don't pass muster.

Colquitt County's dugouts still have open areas for entryways. In Valdosta, new fencing offers no protection overhead.

Still, the sense of urgency to enact a statewide regulation is building. The Colquitt County Board of Education recently passed the Colton Shaw Memorial Resolution, asking local lawmakers and the Georgia High School Association to intervene. Shaw’s family also supports Sharper’s bill.

Some lawmakers are receptive, but there won’t be any rules coming from the association.

Requiring fences or netting would be tantamount to dictating construction decisions, which could expose the Georgia High School Association to a legal liability, said Executive Director Gary Phillips.

Whether to alter dugouts to enhance player safety is a decision best left to the locals, he said, though he added, “It would be hard to argue against it and come off as having any sense at all.”

Mandating extra protection also raises concern about costs, Phillips said.

Forcing schools to add extensive fencing creates an expense that is difficult for some districts and governments to cover. Dugout design varies greatly, and what might be a simple fix for one school could be formidable project for another.

Both Valdosta and Colquitt County relied on donations. Lee County Schools near Albany also added netting at its baseball field, with help from its boosters.

If player safety is the priority, Sharper said, funding shouldn’t be a problem.

“We find the money for everything else. We should be able to find money for safety precautions,” he said.

But Elliot Hopkins, director of sports and student services for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said it's tough to justify a costly regulation when the risk is relatively low.

Hopkins said he is unaware of dugout-related injuries happening elsewhere. His organization relies on the work of Dawn Comstock, a researcher at the University of Colorado’s Colorado School of Public Health who studies high school sports injuries.

Baseball is generally a low-injury sport. Last school year, one injury was reported for every 1,000 times that players were exposed to the sport, whether during a game or at practice, according to Comstock’s findings.

Sprains and strains are the most common injury.

By comparison, the injury rate for football was 3.7 injuries per 1,000 exposures.

The university's research tracks baseball injuries for specific locations on the field — a third of the injuries happened at home plate last year — but Comstock said in an email exchange that dugout injuries are so rare that she does not regularly track them.

But they do happen.

An incident similar to Shaw’s occurred in 2013 when an errant throw hit a Kentucky softball player in the dugout during warm-ups. She suffered fractured eye sockets, retinal tears, a scratched cornea, vision impairment, a concussion, a broken nose and three dislocated teeth, according to news reports.

Her injury also prompted a discussion about the merits of mandatory safety precautions in Kentucky. To this day, there are no states that require dugout fencing, Hopkins said.

Most school dugouts are no-frills — a far cry from the benches a few feet below ground level, behind a screen, that are common in professional parks

“If I was king of the world, I would put dugouts like the New York Yankees' on every baseball field in the country just because it would be really cool and really safe,” Hopkins said. “But I’m not king of the world, and states and schools have limited funds.”

From his viewpoint, educating participants about the dangers that exist and the importance of staying alert is the best way to prevent future tragedies.

That applies to coaches sitting on overturned buckets outside the dugout — a rule violation that the National Federation is encouraging umpires to enforce, Hopkins said.

“Everyone needs to be aware that there is always some risk involved, and we all have an obligation — our coaches, parents, players, umpires, school administrators — to minimize that risk to the best of our ability,” he said.

If fencing becomes a requirement in Georgia, the barrier could be added for less than $1,000 for one dugout, by some estimates. If no structure is in place, a fully enclosed dugout made of chain link fencing could cost as much as $4,000.

Netting can be an easier and less expensive fix, and Sharper said Thursday that he’s open to allowing that option if it proves effective.

Whatever the expense, it would be an “immaterial cost” for most school systems, said Gary Kelley, assistant superintendent for business and finance for Lee County Schools.

While Lee County found help to add netting to its dugout, the district likely will have to pay for netting at other fields.

“How do you put a value on life?” Kelley said. “We weren’t worried about the cost — we went straight to it.”

Jill Nolin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Georgia newspapers. Reach her at jnolin@cnhi.com. Moultrie Observer Sports Editor Wayne Grandy contributed to this report.

 

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