By Ken Reed
I’m a big baseball fan. I played through college and I follow the game very closely. Occasionally, usually through a friend or colleague, I get the opportunity to sit close to the field, not too far above one of the dugouts. What an awesome view. You can really see the pitcher, hitter and catcher interact. The best players in the world are right in front of you and it feels like you can reach out and touch them.
The downside is that this is a very risky place to be. Foul balls (very hard spheres) can shoot at you (and your friends or family) at upwards of 100mph. Serious injuries can happen. And they do. There has been a significant increase in fans being struck and critically injured by foul balls in recent years.
A 2-year-old girl was blasted in the head a couple months ago at a Cubs-Astros game. She suffered a skull fracture, bleeding on the brain and seizures. The batter who hit the ball was horrified by what he witnessed. The Cubs Albert Almora, Jr., stood at home plate in shock and in tears.
That incident isn’t an outlier. Many other fans, including young kids and grandparents, have been struck this season. In two recent games at Tampa, one fan was hit in the head by a ball and the other pounded in the back by a flying bat that slipped out of the batter’s hands. Last year, a 79-year-old woman died from brain injuries after being hit in the skull by a ball.
Illinois senator Dick Durbin has undergone a transition similar to mine on the topic of protective netting. Durbin, a self-proclaimed baseball traditionalist, once hated the idea of netting changing his view of the action. After the girl in Houston was struck, he wrote a letter to baseball commissioner Rob Manfred with fellow senator Tammy Duckworth asking that the commissioner force MLB teams to do more to protect fans.
“You don’t think that much about it because it seems so rare,” said Durbin. “It turns out it’s not that rare. The game has changed.”
Yes, the game has changed, and so has society. In addition to pitchers throwing harder and batters swinging harder, resulting in balls rocketing into the stands at greater speeds, most fans today spend a lot of time checking messages and social media posts on their phones while attending games, putting themselves at greater risk for being injured. Also, newer stadiums were constructed with the stands closer to the field than in the past, increasing the risks to fans. Moreover, baseball, more than any other game, is a social occasion for fans. With lots of breaks in the action, fans spend a lot of time chatting with their neighbors. That can prove dangerous if your head is turned for just a couple seconds and a foul ball comes zipping at you at 100mph. It doesn’t matter if you’re you’re an athletic 20-something, a 2-year-old or an 80-year-old grandparent, avoiding, deflecting, or catching a baseball hit that hard is extremely tough to do.
Here’s a numerical analysis pointing to the need for more net protection at games: The number of foul balls going into the stands has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. The website FiveThirtyEight found that almost 14,000 more foul balls were hit last season than in 1998, when MLB expanded to its current 30 teams. That means a lot more opportunities for injuries to fans to occur. Moreover, of 580 foul balls hit this season, every line drive with a recorded speed off the bat of 90 miles per hour landed in an area that was unprotected by netting.
I’ve changed my mind on protective netting in the last year. The MLB policy should be safety first. We need extended protective netting down the lines in baseball stadiums. All I needed to change my mind was to see the little girl in Houston get struck in the head and carried out of the stadium bleeding while the batter, Amora, Jr., stood watching and weeping. By the way, players, by a wide margin, are calling for extended protective netting in all stadiums.
Die-hard fans, like myself, will adjust to the netting. Some of the best seats in baseball have always been right behind home plate. And there has been protective netting there forever. It’s called a backstop. The new netting, extended down the lines, would be made of the same dark green-tinted mesh that’s behind home plate.
I recently had the chance to sit 10 rows up from the third base dugout at a Colorado Rockies game. At first, I hated the new netting that had been put up this year, reaching from one end of the dugout to the other. But after a couple innings, I didn’t even notice it anymore. The eyes and brain adjust.
Sitting around me were families of all ages. Little kids, teenagers constantly looking at their phones, parents and grandparents. It was comforting to know that they all could relax and enjoy the game without worrying about protecting each other from incoming missiles.
Let’s move forward, protect the fans, and extend the netting down the lines.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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