Florence Freedom becomes one of first baseball teams in the nation to ban peanuts

FLORENCE, Ky. -- Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd, buy me some... wait, hold the peanuts.

That’s what a Northern Kentucky independent minor league baseball team is expecting its fans to say this season, as it takes peanuts off the menu and bans them from the ballpark.

Florence Freedom announced Thursday it would transform UC Health Stadium into an allergy-friendly ballpark to cater to families that don't bring their children to the games because of peanut allergies. 

"It's a small thing we can do. We can still enjoy a game without peanuts, but a kid that can't come here because of peanuts can't enjoy a game at all," said Sarah Eichenberger, a spokesperson for the Florence Freedom team. 

On May 15, the start of the team's 2014 season, fans will no longer be able to purchase shelled peanuts, peanut M&Ms or frozen treats covered with the nut. The team will also post large signs outside prohibiting fans from bringing the snack into the park. 

"We'll service allergy-friendly alternatives. We'll have a couple of trail mixes, different flavors of chips and chocolate," said Eichenberger. 

Minor and major league baseball teams across the country have held peanut sensitive nights for years, but Freedom is claiming to be the first team to get rid of peanuts full-time. It's a bold move in the All-American sport that's so often associated with the snack, and it's shocking to "baseball purists" who believe the two go hand in hand.

"The majority of people question it at first," said Eichenberger. "They say, 'but it's American baseball!' And then they reference the song 'Take me out to the ball game.'"

But for Lisa Hartke, a Fort Mitchell resident and mother of three, the move couldn't be more exciting because her family has historically stayed far away from the ballpark. Her 4-year-old son Toby Fries, an avid baseball fan, is severely allergic to peanuts.

"He says frequently, 'I want to be a baseball player.' One time it made me cry because I'm like 'Buddy, I don't know if that can happen. I don't know if you could be around peanuts," said Hartke. 

She's taken her son to two peanut sensitive nights, where peanuts were temporarily banned from the game. 

"I got to throw the first pitch," said her son, as he demonstrated how he threw the ball. 

Some medical experts say it's safe for a child with a peanut allergy to go to a baseball game.

"I tell patients that if they go to the game and don't eat the peanuts, they'll be fine."  said Amal Assa'ad, clinical director of allergy and immunology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. "The real issue is sometimes there are families with small children crawling around and if there are peanut shells on the ground, they will touch those shells and then touch their faces."

But Hartke worries that even contact with a peanut shell could turn deadly for her son so she's avoided the games until now.

"I'm fearful of going to a baseball game and getting peanuts in my shoes, getting peanut residue on me. I just don't want to take any risk," she said. "My husband and I went to a game once and we had to take all of our clothes off in the basement." 

Hartke broke the news to her son Thursday -- that he could now go to any Freedom baseball game that he likes. 

"He said, 'Can we go tomorrow?'"

Veronica LaFemina, vice president of communications for Food Allergy Research and Education, a group that advocates for allergy accommodations, said the she's pleased with Freedom's peanut-free move, and said she is starting to notice more teams catering to fans with special needs. 

"This is something that we are seeing increase in recent years. Just a handful of years ago, we wouldn't have seen nearly as many games as we are seeing now that are inclusive," she said.

The Cincinnati Reds is one of about a dozen Major League Baseball teams that now offer peanut sensitive days each year, blocking off a special section for an additional 300 fans at each peanut sensitive game.   

The team held its first peanut sensitive game in 2012 and has since increased its allergy-friendly offerings to four games this year.

"We increased the number of days based on demand," said Mark Schueler, senior director of ticket sales and service at the Cincinnati Reds. "It would be difficult to see the entire ballpark go peanut-free, but I don't think it's out of the question to see more sections in [MLB ballparks] going peanut-free in the future." 

The upcoming Reds peanut sensitive games are May 11, July 6 and Aug. 24. Click here for a list of other 2014 food allergy friendly baseball games. 
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