Foolishness of Using Young Children as Bat Boys

A Low Frequency Tragedy Can Still Be Inevitable

Posted Aug 09, 2015

A baseball bat, when swung hard, has the potential to kill or seriously injure anyone unlucky enough to be struck by it. This dangerous truth was illustrated in August 2015 in a tragic accident in Kansas, when Kaiser Carlile, a 9-year-old bat boy for a Wichita adult amateur team, was fatally struck in the head when he ran into the follow-through phase of a practice swing taken by a team member. As a result of this accident, the league—the National Baseball Congress-- has suspended the use of bat boys for the time being. As my topic in this column is risk-unawareness, I shall analyze this incident in terms of three levels of potential risk-unawareness: (a) the child who died; (b) the young man who swung the bat; and (c) the adults in charge of the team and league. In undertaking this analysis it is not my intent to assign blame, but rather to shed light on why such a tragedy, albeit rare, was to some extent forseeable and thus largely  avoidable.

                             Risk-Unawareness of the Victim

A bat boy (or bat girl) can have several duties, but the main one (which gives the job its name) is picking up bats discarded by players and lying on the ground, after a batter takes off for first base or after he is done with an at-bat. This primary duty is relevant to understanding the nature of the accident that took the life of Kaiser Carlile.

Details about the exact nature of the accident, as well as the identity of the batter, are largely missing from news accounts. I initially assumed that Kaiser was standing behind and too close to the batter who was warming up, but an eyewitness account clarifies that what actually happened is that Kaiser had run onto the field to retrieve a bat that had been used in a previous at-bat, and while hustling back to the dugout ran right into the backswing of a player warming up in the batter’s circle. This clarification is important to understanding the accident, as both Kaiser and the warming-up player would likely have been aware of the need to be cautious if Kaiser was initially anywhere near the occupied batter’s circle (where on-deck hitters stand when they are warming up).

By all accounts, Kaiser was a very diligent bat boy, who worked hard at his craft and was motivated to proudly do his job well and quickly. It is understandable that he was so focused on picking up a discarded bat that he would fail to recognize that he was running into a danger zone where an on-deck batter was taking practice swings. Using my four factor explanatory model of foolish (risk-unaware) action, Affect (in this case, a strong motivational need to quickly do his main job well) would have caused Kaiser to lose track of other things occurring on the field. But Cognition also played a critical role, as the ability to “conserve” (keep in mind) a less salient and relatively abstract consideration (here, staying safe by scanning the field when running with a discarded bat) in the face of a more salient and concrete consideration (here, a bat needing to be picked up and returned quickly) is a skill that develops in the primary years and likely is not fully achieved by age nine.

                                  Risk-Unawareness of the Batter

If, as I initially assumed, the batter had been taking warm-up swings with Kaiser standing near him, then I would have faulted him for failing to look around sufficiently before swinging. But as Kaiser apparently ran into the swing, I will absolve the batter of any responsibility, as no on-deck batter could have anticipated such a thing happening.

                           Risk-Unawareness of Team or League Officials

I do not know if young child bat boys or bat girls are commonly used by other teams in the National Baseball Congress, but I do know that they were banned by Major League Baseball (MLB) after an eerily similar incident (but one with a happier outcome) occurred in the 2002 World Series. In Game five of that series, between the San Francisco Giants and the (then) Anaheim Angels, the bat boy for the Giants was Darren Baker, the three-and-a- half year old son of Dusty Baker, the Giants’ manager.  When his favorite player, Kenny Lofton, hit a triple, Darren excitedly ran onto the field to retrieve the bat, and ended up in the base path near Home just as two runners were rounding third base and barreling down on him. The first runner, J.T. Snow, had the presence of mind to pick Darren up by his shirt collar and yank him to safety before he could be injured. After that incident, MLB announced that henceforth, no one younger than age 14 could serve in a bat boy or bat girl capacity. However, there reportedly are some teams that went even further, and established 18 as the minimum required age.

Admittedly, employing a bat boy of age three is a more egregious violation of common sense than employing a bat boy who is nine. One can only marvel at the risk-unawareness (and ignorance of child development) of Dusty Baker and team officials at allowing Darren to serve in an on-field role that requires a level of situational knowledge (that base runners could score), judgment (recognizing when a play is still ongoing) and self-regulation (subordinating excitement to a need to stay out of harm’s way) that no three-year-old in recorded history has ever possessed. But nine is still too young, in the opinion of this developmental psychologist, for a person to serve in a role as potentially dangerous—given the dynamic, complex, unpredictable and excitement-laden nature of baseball games --- as bat boy or bat girl.

I believe that there was a cuteness factor” that underlay the use of Darren (he was adorable and loved by players and fans) and also was operating in Wichita with regard to Kaiser (a very endearing boy who was described by one player as the little “brother I never had.”) In addition to this Affective factor is a Cognitive process that might be termed the base-rate factor. Simply put, this refers to the fact that when the probability (given reported past instances) of a bad incident is very low, there is a tendency to assume that the risk of such an incident is negligible and thus not worth taking seriously.  But when we are talking about the well-being of children, even a tiny possibility of tragedy (and I would bet that a number of near-miss or non-tragic cases have gone unreported) requires the adults in charge to say “no” to the employment of children in a role where tragedy is forseeable even if likely to occur only rarely.  

                    Copyright Stephen Greenspan