High in the stands, a calculation between safety and sight lines

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

Credit: Kevin C. Cox

The ball cracked off the bat and tailed my way at Turner Field, a curving liner.

I stood and readied myself for my mini-moment of fame as a fan, the closest I’ll ever get to being involved in Major League action — catching a foul ball.

But as I stood, I got the wheezy moment of vertigo that we who fear heights get when standing at the precipice. I glanced at the concrete and steel 50 feet below, leaned back to be safe and watched the ball ricochet off my palm, hit my chest and bounce harmlessly into the lap of the guy sitting next to me.

He raised the ball in triumph as those nearby razzed me mercilessly for my clumsy effort.

Such was life at Section 409, Row 1, our perch at Turner Field for more than a decade. The seats were halfway between home plate and first base and carried a bird’s eye view of the action on and off the field. And they had a nice panoramic view of downtown.

Strangely, perhaps ominously, I was reminiscing about the good old days of our season tickets at Section 409, Row 1, while at Saturday night’s game against the Yankees. That was the same game where I and hundreds of others witnessed the macabre and disturbing spectacle of a man dying while on night out at the ballgame.

Greg "Ace" Murrey, a 60-year-old insurance agent from Alpharetta, was the third fan killed in a fall at the 18-year-old ballpark. (One was ruled a suicide.)

Earlier in Saturday’s game I was chatting with David Gibson, an AJC editor who was one of those who shared that season ticket package with me years ago. While talking about the fabulous view, the low price ($10) and the exciting games, including a World Series against these same hated Yankees, we recalled the sense of danger one felt by sidling down the aisle and climbing across others to get to those seats. The metal railing keeping you from hurtling to an ugly demise was just thigh high.

But, even though I had young kids at the time, the danger was part of the package, part of the vista. Back in 1997, when the Braves moved from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to The Ted, one of our group, Michelle Hiskey, wanted to move back a row. Michelle was an AJC reporter who had covered the building of the stadium and she argued (as I remember) that the railing was at a height that obstructed view of the action.

But I lobbied my fellow season ticket holders to ignore her advice. Why on earth would you not want the front row? I argued.

On Monday, I called Michelle to ask her why she wanted to move us back.

“Because I don’t like heights,” she said chuckling, perhaps a bit more honestly with the passage of time. “That sheer drop-off feeling is unnerving.”

The feeling is well known to those sitting near the railing and to those who design parks.

“With architects there’s kind of a dance between safety and sight lines,” said Michelle of the danger-versus-dollars calculus. “And (the railing height) is the sweet spot.”

Seats and railings could be designed so that no one ever falls, but that would be at a cost to the sight lines. Those erecting parks leave it to fans to have common sense and personal responsibility.

I think of all this now in the very public and awful death of Murrey, a season ticket holder of 23 years, going back to the old park.

The man’s fatal fall demonstrates just how fleeting it all is. On Saturday night, he’s an enthusiastic fan, rising from his second-row seat in Section 401 to boo an athletic villain in the form of A-Rod. Some 16 hours later, his smiling image is on the Jumbotron in centerfield as the teams and packed stadium take a moment to note his passing.

Shock in the stands: 'I can't believe it'

I was on the concourse stretching my legs and nearing section 201 behind home plate Saturday night when Murrey fell. I had wandered that way to get a better view than I had in an overpriced seat in Section 227 down by the right-field corner.

I was thinking of grabbing a beer and standing behind home plate when Alex Rodriguez wandered into the on-deck circle to rising boos complemented by an undercurrent of cheers. Suddenly, there was a commotion in front of me, with people scurrying, some screaming, everybody staring. I figured it must be a fight with all the beer flowing and Yankees fans hollering.

But as I scanned the aisles, there were no fisticuffs. “A child fell from the upper deck,” one lady said, repeating what she had been told. Another lady shuddered. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

A man with a boy, perhaps 7 with his mitt and his little Braves hat, walked up the aisle. They looked stunned. The father told me what he had seen. It happened right in front of him, the man said. Right in front of him, the boy confirmed. It was a terrible thud. Then the two hurried away.

And the teams played on

A man who said he was an EMT pushed through as security converged on the scene in the gangway between the field seats and Section 201. A man pumped ferociously on Murrey’s chest as fans wandered about or stood staring in muted horror as what they had witnessed sank in. Hundreds of people, perhaps thousands watched in silence.

The term “surreal” kept getting repeated by those in attendance because, I guess, there was no other way to describe what had occurred and continued to occur.

The game continued on as the area around Section 201 fell deathly quiet. A-Rod got an intentional walk, the most mundane of baseball plays, the inning ended and then, as happens every game, “Take me Out to the Ballgame” and “The Devil Came Down to Georgia” blared over loudspeakers as volunteers and emergency personnel tried in vain to save a man’s life.