- - Sunday, June 4, 2017


It didn’t get much notice, but Major League Baseball recently announced a decision that could save your life at a baseball game — a decision that particularly hit home for me.

MLB officials announced that drones — flying missiles in the wrong hands — are prohibited at ballparks.

It was prompted by a near-tragic accident at Petco Park in San Diego, when a drone nearly crashed into a group of fans at the ballpark.

A drone flying inside the ballpark crashed into an empty seat in between two fans in the upper deck.

“This incident highlights the dangers posed by unauthorized drone use in proximity to large public venues like Petco Park,” Padres Chief Operating Officer Erik Greupner said in a statement to Sports Illustrated. “The Padres vocally supported the City of San Diego’s recently enacted ordinance that enables SDPD to enforce the FAA’s restrictions on operating drones near large public venues.”

Yes, people operating hand-held flying devices near — or in — large public venues is a dangerous act. This would seem sort of obvious.

Yet one time the New York Jets had a festival of flying devices at a halftime show at Shea Stadium in a game against the New England Patriots — and one 20-year-old man died as a result, not far from where I was sitting as a spectator.

It’s a scene I will never forget — this young man, John Bowen, a horrible, bloody mess being carried out of the stands on a stretcher and placed into an ambulance that had come on the field to transport him to a local hospital.

Six days later, John Bowen, who had simply come to watch his football team on a cold Sunday afternoon in December 1979, was dead.

He died from a flying lawn mower.

That may seem funny, but having witnessed it first-hand, there was nothing humorous about the accident and the remarkably irresponsible decisions that allowed it to happen.

Reportedly, one of the local commentators at the Padres game quipped, “Pretty sure the Russians have something to do with this,” but given how close someone came yet again, decades later, to possibly dying because of some foolish hobby whim, it was chilling to recall what I saw in Shea Stadium that afternoon.

It was halftime of the Dec. 9 game — a 4 p.m. start — between the Jets and the Patriots. The sanctioned halftime entertainment was an exhibition of radio control flying devices by the Electronic Eagles of the Radio Control Association of Greater New York.

This wasn’t the first time the group had staged such a show for entertainment — with flying model planes in all sorts of shapes and sizes performing acrobatic acts.

But these devices weren’t just flying around on the field — they would sometimes buzz the crowd. Several of them flew directly over us. It seemed potentially dangerous, but not life-threatening. One fan told The New York Times, “They were sending those things right over the crowds. I had an aisle seat near an exit, and I had it in my mind that if it came near me, I would run. It seemed so stupid, so sick, to send this thing over these people.”

It seemed stupid, period, to be flying electronically-controlled devices inside a large concrete stadium with 50,000 fans and a large, metropolitan airport, with all sorts of signals and waves transmitting through the air, right next door in the dark of night.

Then the scene that I will never forget. One of these devices was in the shape of a lawn mower. The operator had a particularly difficult time getting it off the ground. Finally, when it took off, it began flying in and out over the crowd, right near where we were sitting. Then suddenly it made a nose dive into the stands, slamming into Bowen and another man, Kevin Rourke, 25, of Lynn, Massachusetts.

The second half was delayed as medics responded. Ambulances drove onto the field as we watched the two men placed into the emergency vehicles. Rourke would recover, but Bowen died of his severe injuries six days later.

Eventually, the game resumed, as the Jets won, 27-26.

Two years later, The New York Times reported a $10 million lawsuit was filed in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Named as defendants in the negligence suit, which was filed by the man’s father, James, were the New York Jets Football Club, the Radio Control Association of Greater New York and Philip Cushman, identified in court papers as the owner-operator of the flying device.

The fans sitting in the upper deck at Petco Park should feel very fortunate for the empty seats.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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