Worst case scenarios

by Russ Roberts on November 19, 2007

in Podcast, Risk and Safety

The latest EconTalk is a conversation with Cass Sunstein about his new book, Worst Case Scenarios. The main focus is how hard it is for humans to deal rationally with low probability catastrophic events. When one of these occurs, such as 9-11, we tend to overestimate the risks of another disaster.

Here is a smaller tragedy that I brought up in the conversation. Last summer, a first-base coach in the minor leagues was killed by a line drive. A terrible tragedy. As far as I know, no major league coach has ever been killed by a batted ball. And this may have been the first minor league coach killed by a batted ball. It’s a terrible tragedy. But something has to be done, even though the odds are miniscule that such an event will happen again:

Baseball wants to prevent another tragic
accident like the one that killed Mike Coolbaugh.

   General managers decided Thursday that first- and third-base
coaches will wear some sort of head protection next season, a move
that came four months after Coolbaugh was struck in the neck by a
line drive during a minor league game.

   Coolbaugh, a former major league player, was a coach for the
Colorado Rockies‘ Double-A team in Tulsa when he died July 22. He
had been hit by a liner as he stood in the first-base coach’s box
during a Texas League game at Arkansas.

   Some major league coaches responded by wearing helmets the rest
of the season.

   "There was a sentiment that as a concept this was a good
idea," said Joe Garagiola Jr., senior vice president for baseball
operations in the commissioner’s office.

   GMs will decide on the exact form of protection when they meet
next month at the winter meetings.

   "We’re going to come back in Nashville with some options:
liners, hard caps, helmets without flaps, helmets with flaps,"
Garagiola said.

It may indeed to be a good idea for coaches to wear helmets. But it may be a bad idea. My guess is that it may cause some coaches to be less vigilant, knowing that they’re wearing a helmet. But whether it is a good idea or not, what is more interesting is that something is going to be done to try and prevent something from happening that is unbelievably unlikely.

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Randy November 19, 2007 at 11:41 am

If the coaches have to wear helmets, shouldn't the pitcher have to wear one too? And perhaps at least some of the people in the stands as well? I guess we'll have to do some calculations. Exactly how far must a batted ball travel before it could absolutely never cause a fatal injury?

Mox November 19, 2007 at 12:05 pm

If he was struck in the neck, how would a normal baseball helmet have prevented that?

Billy November 19, 2007 at 12:29 pm

While I agree with the overarching point of Russ' post, it seems to me that the key in the baseball example is that wearing a helmet is a very low-cost solution. The real trouble with the irrational reactions to unlikely disasters begins when the "something has to be done" solution comes with significant costs, especially when those costs are imposed on others, and in the absolute worst case, when those costs are imposed on the victims of the disaster right when they're least able to bear them (e.g., anti-gouging legislation).

shawn November 19, 2007 at 1:14 pm

as randy said, why stop with the coaches? How is this any different than the infielders? Is that just because the infielders are presumably younger and therefore quicker?

Billy November 19, 2007 at 1:18 pm

The more I think about it, the perceived need for a centrally-mandated solution when there seems to be a variety of solutions that appeal to different coaches, from recognizing the improbability of a repeat to inserts to full-blown helmets, is just as interesting.

dave smith November 19, 2007 at 1:31 pm

Something to consider: If we consider something to be a low prob event, and it happens, we might want to reconsider if it is indeed a low prob event.

Example: If my reservation wage is 30,000 and my first job offer is 80,000, I might want to reconsider my reservation wage. An 80,000/year job is a very low Prob event for someone who is worth 30,000. So low, that if such an offer is made, it might cause me to doubt the accuracy of the prob of it happening in the first place.

Now, I'll agree that people nearly always take it too far, but some updating in beliefs is smart.

Chicagoan November 19, 2007 at 3:21 pm

Mox is the only one who addressed the real question. A helmet wouldn't have saved this particular individual (it did hit him in the neck). So the "low-cost solution" is, in fact, not a solution at all.

Billy November 19, 2007 at 4:36 pm

I haven't seen film of it, but even assuming "hit in the neck" is accurate and descriptive enough for us to conclude a helmet wouldn't have helped Coolbaugh, that's a footnote, not "the real question." I think even the low-cost solution isn't much of a solution because, as Russ said, a repeat instance is highly unlikely. Assuming it's likely to happen again, though, the coach is more likely to die from a line drive to the head than to the neck. That a solution isn't perfect (assuming one is called for) doesn't mean it isn't a solution.

ben November 19, 2007 at 7:01 pm

As always, asking the individual to make his own decision in view of the risks seems likely to produce a sensible outcome.

Gil November 20, 2007 at 1:35 am

Here's a baseball injury video:


Bill November 20, 2007 at 3:26 am

Well, I am sure many, many players and coaches are injured by line-drives. We now know they can be fatal. So why is wearing helmets a bad idea? Because another fatal line drive might not happen? With the crazy aluminum bats used in high school games, which bounce the ball off the bat so much faster, I can assure you the chance of sever injury to everybody in the infield, and especially the pitcher, is extremely high.

Forbes November 20, 2007 at 11:58 am

Yes, yes, the chance of injury to everyone is extremely high–that's why we're all so familiar with the hundreds of injuries that occur each year. Gee, this sounds like a reason for a Congressional investigation into the epidemic. And those aluminum bats–boy are they dangerous. Why did they allow those to be introduced last year?

What? Aluminum bats were first utilized in 1969?

Never mind.

michael November 20, 2007 at 12:03 pm

Five or six years ago a young girl was killed by a puck during an NHL game. It is the first time this has ever happened. Now every arena in the nation has huger net strung at the end of the rinks.

Unlike helmets for first base coaches, this fix was expensive. The chief cost is that it has all but destroyed the views from those seats at the ends of the rink. The only way I'll go to an NHL game is if I can sit along the sides…but those seats are 80-100% more expensive than the seats at the end. Thus my normal 10-12 games/year have dropped to 3-4.

vidyohs November 21, 2007 at 9:17 am

If I am a runner on first base and Billy hits a shot into the gap between the left fielder and the center fielder I will be tempted to strech it and attempt to get to third base.

Joey in centerfield has a rocket arm that is capable of bringing a throw at 102 MPH, Joey gets the ball and fires it to third base aiming for a point about one foot above the ground and about one foot inside the bag so the third baseman doesn't have to move his glove to make the tag.

Unfortunately for me, my helmet came off as I rounded second and my bare head is now going to be in exactly the position that Joey is throwing at because I always slide head first and head up. My head and Joey's 102 MPH throw meet and my career is over due to permanant head damage.

The league owners should get together and mandate that no one attempt to take that extra bag when in "their" judgement it will be unsafe to do so, and helmets must be made with chinstraps so that they will not come off.

They should also determine the speed at which a ball can be traveling and not cause serious damage to human tissue and bone. I also think that the ball must be made softer so that it has some give in it in case the speed calculated by the owners is off by a significant factor, or some one like muirduck is playing and has a naturally softer head.

Then the owners should also prohibit rocket armed outfielders from playing the game.

To provide interesting scoring the fences could be moved in to a distance of 100 feet so that the new slower softer ball can still be hit over the fence.

God………once it starts, where does it end?

Does everyone else see the socialist pattern in all that. Everything is identical except we have replaced the nanny state with the nanny owners afraid of the nanny state……yeah, well, I guess it is the nanny state in the end anyway, isn't it?

God……once it starts, where does it end?

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