A young girl rests peacefully in the stands along the third-base line at the Yankee Stadium on a balmy, late-summer afternoon. The sun is out and temperatures approach 80 degrees with a light breeze as the game’s stars mill about the field, shagging fly balls and fielding grounders. Fans buzz with excitement as players step in and out of the batting cage. The soothing smells of baseball float through the Bronx air — hot dogs, popcorn and fresh cut grass.
A loud crack reverberates about the park. A white-and-red blur rockets into the seats beyond the visiting dugout. The baseball, weighing 5.25 ounces, a rubber cork wrapped in yarn and sealed with animal hide, crashes into the head of the unsuspecting young girl. Chaos ensues. Stadium employees rush to the scene. A panicked murmur spreads through the crowd.
The date is Aug. 28, 2003.
The young girl is nine-year-old Shannon McGuinness of Pearl River, N.Y., and in an instant she’s fighting for her life, lapsing in and out of consciousness in the stands of Yankee Stadium.
The batting practice line drive that struck an inch above Shannon’s right temple fractured her skull in eight places.
She’s rushed to a nearby hospital for surgery. She would spend the next five days in intensive care followed by about another week in a hospital bed before being discharged.
But it was just the beginning.
Frequent migraines. Memory loss. Learning disabilities stemming from traumatic brain injury disorder. These are the obstacles Shannon has faced every day of her life since that ball struck her in the eye, something she knows could have been prevented.
Fourteen years later, she watches as another young girl suffers the same unnecessary fate while sitting in the stands along the third-base line at the new Yankee Stadium.
“I can’t believe this happened again,” says Shannon.
Says Ed McGuinness, Shannon’s father who was with her that day back in 2003, “It’s re-living a bad dream.”
On Wednesday, Sept. 20, in a home game against the Twins, Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier turns on a 94-mph fastball inside and smacks a screaming line drive into the seats. The ball hits a young girl in the face, halting the game while players look on in with tears in their eyes, unable to hide the pain and horror they feel churning in their stomachs.
In the clubhouse after the game, several Yankees, including Chase Headley and Aaron Judge, call for extending protective netting along the first- and third-base lines, a measure the Daily News has advocated for and championed for years, along with City Councilman Rafael Espinal.
Espinal has a bill that would mandate all stadiums in New York City extend netting down both baselines.
“I don’t want to have to legislate this,” Espinal told the News in May. “I would rather have the teams take this opportunity to do it themselves.
“Other teams are doing it. I’m baffled as to why this is such a big deal for the teams here in New York.”
The Mets, taking matters into their own hands, extended their protective netting over the All-Star break in July. Four teams (Reds, Mariners, Padres and Rockies) announced they would do the same after the young girl was hit at the Stadium two weeks ago (The family has opted to keep her name and age private). There are now 10 teams with netting down both baselines, and while commissioner Rob Manfred recommends all teams do the same, it’s still up to discretion of each team to do so.
The Yankees remain unwilling to sacrifice the value of those seats to ensure the safety of their fans. After Shannon’s accident, the team started erecting temporary nets along the lines during batting practice; however, they take them down before first pitch.
Which begs the question: When will enough be enough?
Does a fan have to die for the Yankees to finally give in?
“That’s honestly exactly what I’m thinking,” says Shannon, now 23 and working toward her master’s degree at the University of Arizona. “I feel so lucky today and every day to be alive. I have confidence that MLB will do the right thing and put up netting. But I definitely don’t know what they’re waiting for.”
Ed McGuinness, who still copes daily with the emotional toll of that catastrophic August afternoon in 2003, is begging the Yankees to stop this from ever happening again.
“I know they have a business issue to contend with, and I guess those are the better seats or very expensive and some people that own them don’t want it,” says Ed. “But at the end of the day, I think the safety of the fans has to weigh in. If you have to sit behind a screen to keep everybody safe, I think that’s probably a fair tradeoff, right? If some kid does die, it’d be unimaginable for everybody involved. Obviously the Yankees don’t want that to happen to anybody. The impact is broad on the person that gets hit, and it’s broader to family and friends. It’s something that stays with you.
“You never, ever forget that.”
* * *
Ed McGuiness took the day off from work on that Thursday in 2003. His three kids — 14-year-old Eddie, 12-year-old Kelly and 9-year-old Shannon — were starting school early the next month, and he wanted to treat them to one final summer day at the ballpark.
For a family of diehard Yankee fans, what better place to do that than at a baseball game in the Bronx? Ed and his kids arrived at the Stadium early for the 1:05 p.m. start. They found their seats along the third-base line and settled in for batting practice. The kids moved close to the wall in search of autographs from their heroes. Ed walked up the stairs and into the concourse to buy Eddie, Kelly and Shannon s little something to snack on.
He returned after several minutes carrying a tray full of soda, popcorn and pretzels. He started walking down the steps back to his seats when he saw something no parent ever wants to see: his youngest daughter, lying unconscious, cradled in the arms of a caring stranger.
A line drive off the bat of White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko had whizzed into the stands and smashed into Shannon’s head, just above her right eye.
“Her eye socket,” says Ed, going back to that day, the worst of his life, “was just crushed.”
Eddie, still just a teenager, checked his sister’s pulse. Kelly was inconsolable. Ed tried to get Shannon to drink some water, “but she kept passing out.”
“You just get on automatic pilot and say, ‘What do I have to do here to save my daughter,” says Ed.
Help arrived, and stadium attendants sped Shannon to the triage facility inside the Stadium.
“They came right in and said, ‘We need to get her to the hospital,’” remembers Ed.
EMTs loaded Shannon into an ambulance and took off for New York-Presbyterian, racing over sidewalks to avoid the large crowds. They reached the hospital, and doctors immediately recognized the severity of the situation. They diagnosed Shannon as having a fractured skull. They worried fragments of bone might puncture her brain.
“The news just kept getting worse that first day,” says Ed.
Shannon went to the operating room that night for neurosurgery. The family — now joined by Ed’s wife Peggy, grandparents, aunts and uncles — waited helplessly.
“It was,” says Ed, pausing to hold back his tears, “just about as awful as you could imagine.
“When they took her in, we were just like, ‘Oh my god, is she going to come out?’ But she did.”
The family slept in the hospital with Shannon for two-and-a-half days after the surgery.
“She was touch and go,” says Ed.
During the stay, a young cancer patient in the neighboring bed succumbed to the disease. Ed and Peggy watched as the child’s parents mourned their loss, their gut-wrenching moans filled the hospital’s halls.
They couldn’t help but wonder if that would soon be them.
But after five days, Shannon finally became lucid.
“It was remarkable,” says Ed. “All of a sudden, boom, she came out of it, looked up and started talking, and we were just, ‘Whoa, how did that happen?’ I guess the brain works in strange ways.”
Shannon was alive. But this was just the start of her struggle.
“We counted our lucky stars that she came out it,” says Ed, “because it could have gone the other way.”
When Shannon regained the strength to walk to the bathroom from her hospital bed, Ed stood in front of the mirror to protect his daughter from seeing her bruised and broken face.
“She looked scary,” he says. “You think of how close we were to losing our child. For a baseball.”
* * *
Shannon returned to the family’s home in Pearl River. A week later, Derek Jeter called the house to send his best. The Yankees invited her to a World Series game in 2009. She met the team. She sat in George Steinbrenner’s box. She’s even held a birthday party at the Stadium.
“They were terrific to us,” Ed says of the Yankees.
It’s long been baseball’s policy as it pertains to injuries resulting from balls and bats striking fans in the stands outside the “danger zone” (the areas not protected by netting) that the spectator who purchased a ticket takes on an assumption of risk upon entering the ballpark. With a child, however, the legal issue gets murky. How much risk can a 9-year-old understand?
The Yankees, who declined to comment for this story, covered all of the McGuinness’ medical bills for years after the accident. The McGuinesses never even thought of suing the club.
“Lots of people told us to but we didn’t think that way,” says Ed. “I’m very happy we didn’t.”
Andy Zlotnik, a real estate executive who was also hit in the eye by a line drive in 2011, lost his suit against the Yankees, and is appealing.
“I’m still pursuing my own case but I’m less interested in the money than the publicity,” Zlotnick told the News a year ago. “I don’t get what the reluctance is; baseball is just too dangerous for fans sitting in the stands.
“Nobody should go to a ballpark and come out without an eye or disabled. Enough is enough.”
Shannon, then in the second grade, missed several months of school. When she finally did rejoin her classmates, debilitating migraines forced her to leave early on a regular basis. Her mother Peggy would race to the school to pick her up before the headaches grew too severe.
“We had to close all the blinds and have complete silence in the house,” says Ed. “We couldn’t even put a compress on her because she felt like it was a rock against her head.”
Once an avid reader and lover of learning, Shannon recoiled from school. She struggled to stay organized. She lacked math skills. She fell so far behind that she lost confidence in her abilities. Oftentimes, she would approach her parents and open her mouth to speak, but could produce no words.
“I couldn’t process the information fast enough,” she says.
All of this resulted from her brain injury.
“I was 9 years old,” says Shannon. “I didn’t really understand why school was more challenging for me because of this.”
Adds Ed, “It’s heart-wrenching to see your kid have that kind of pain from a headache where you can’t even open your eyes for hours and hours at a time.
“You just see it and you say, ‘Man, this was not necessary.’”
The migraines dissipated briefly when Shannon turned 12, but they returned “with a vengeance,” as she puts it, when she got to high school.
The next four years were the most challenging of her childhood.
“I was so frustrated with school. I really did not want to go to college,” she says. “I was so overwhelmed, just with schoolwork. It was really, really hard for me, and I had no idea what direction my life was going to go in.”
Says Ed, “We didn’t know what she was going to do.”
Options for college were limited. In the years after the accident, Shannon was diagnosed with a learning disability. She needed support if she was going to rediscover a passion for school.
Salvation came in the form of the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at the University of Arizona, a program that specializes in higher education for students with learning and attention challenges.
“It was a godsend for all of us,” says Ed. “They changed her life.”
Shannon graduated with a 3.8 GPA. She’s now working as a special education teacher in Tucson, Ariz., while attending graduate school.
Reminders of her accident remain, however. She carries around a small book with her at all times, where she writes down crucial tasks she can’t forget.
“I’m doing fine, more or less,” says Shannon. “I’m having headaches. I’m learning disabled. But it could have been so much worse.”
It also could have been prevented altogether.
* * *
Texts started pouring into Ed’s phone.
Family and friends were reaching out, all re-living Shannon’s accident through the videos and articles about the latest little girl hit in the face by a line drive at Yankee Stadium. And all asked the same question.
How could this still be happening?
The sights and sounds of that fateful August afternoon in 2003 came rushing back to Shannon, Ed, Peggy, Eddie and Kelly.
“I could visualize walking down the steps with the tray with the sodas and the popcorn and pretzel and all that stuff, and then I can see the fellow that was holding her.” says Ed, his voice trailing off, all the details still fresh in his mind, as though this happened days ago not years.
Shannon and the little girl from last month were sitting in almost the exact same spot.
“That’s what was so eerie to me,” says Shannon.
Shannon doesn’t want to speculate about what might happen to this poor girl. Latest reports suggested she’s out of the hospital.
But as Shannon knows all too well, leaving the hospital may only be the beginning of a very arduous and pain-filled journey.
“I don’t want to suggest that anything negative is going to happen to her. But this girl could potentially have lifelong effects,” says Shannon. “It’s 14 years later, and I’m telling you that it’s still affecting my life. And to be honest, I feel really lucky.”
Shannon has returned to the Stadium every year since the accident, she says.
“My life completely changed at a Yankee Game,” she says. “But I continue to be a Yankee fan.”
A Yankee fan, yes. But also a fan asking an organization she respects to do the right thing, the only thing to prevent anyone else from going through what she did — the pain, the suffering, the loss of the little girl she was.
“People need to stop getting hurt,” she says. “Preventative netting should be put up for everybody to be safe.”