Baseball debates adding netting for fan safety or sticking to status quo
When a fan made a one-handed catch of a foul ball while bottle-feeding his infant son during a Cubs game in late June, the video went viral and he gained international attention.
Unusual catches of foul balls or home runs are a staple of sports highlights shows, and sometimes the battle in the stands for baseballs is more interesting than the game itself.
But recent injuries caused by flying bats and balls leaves Major League Baseball with a complex issue that could alter the ballpark experience dramatically.
Should there be minimum requirements on how much safety netting is used at major-league ballparks, or should fans sitting in those seats take the same risks millions of others have dealt with for more than a century?
There’s no consensus on the issue, though the MLB Players Association has tried to require more netting behind the plate in previous labor talks and may do so again when the collective-bargaining agreement comes up in 2016.
“In the last two rounds of collective bargaining, we’ve made a proposal to increase the netting,” Cardinals reliever and players union representative Carlos Villanueva said. “We’ve gotten some resistance.
“Some of the fans didn’t want to (do it), but the sad thing about it is something (bad) has to happen, and it has happened a couple of times already this season, for that to come back into the conversation. It’s something that MLB is looking at more closely, and hopefully we can make some improvements.”
Every ballpark is different, but typically the netting behind home plate runs between the batting circles, protecting fans immediately behind the batter. But that leaves hundreds of fans vulnerable, and June 5 at Fenway Park, 44-year-old Red Sox fan Tonya Carpenter was struck and injured by a piece of Brett Lawrie’s broken bat. Carpenter was admitted to a hospital with life-threatening injuries but underwent successful brain surgery and reportedly is much better and rehabbing at home.
Other ballpark injuries have occurred since then, and while none has been as severe as Carpenter’s, the debate has intensified. According to a Bloomberg Businessweek report based on estimates of foul ball injuries from a handful of parks, about 1,750 spectators get hurt each year as a result of baseballs flying into the stands. Only one fan reportedly has died as a result of being hit by a foul ball, during a Dodgers-Giants game at Dodger Stadium in 1970.
A class-action lawsuit was filed recently by an A’s fan in the Northern District of California seeking to extend the protective screens all around baseball.
MLB then released a statement: “Fan safety is our foremost goal for all those who choose to support our game by visiting our ballparks, and we always strive for that experience to be safe and fan-friendly. Major League Baseball is in the process of re-evaluating all issues pertaining to fan safety, comfort and expectations.”
The White Sox and Cubs declined to discuss the issue of additional netting when contacted by the Tribune. Cubs spokesman Julian Green said the team does not “make statements related to pending lawsuits,” adding they take safety “seriously” and “make fans aware of the need to be alert and watch out for fly balls through in-ballpark announcements and signage throughout the ballpark.”
Sox spokesman Scott Reifert also said they would not comment on the issue because of the lawsuit but pointed to the announcements and warnings to fans, adding “also we would note that the majority of our fans request to not sit behind the netting/screen.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred said at the All-Star Game that it’s a team issue, not a league issue.
“Obviously we had a very serious injury,” he said. “It concerns us. But making a major change in the game in a reactive mode, I believe, is a mistake. The clubs remain free to do what they want to do in their own ballparks.”
The fans’ argument against added netting is simple. They’re paying good money to sit as close to the field as possible and want an unimpeded view of the action. Modern “retro” ballparks allow fans closer to the action than their peers from the 1960s and ‘70s, which puts more fans in harm’s way.
Most players understand this, but many would rather be more cautious because they’re the ones causing the balls and bats to fly.
“I don’t know what the (players’) consensus is, but my personal opinion is we should have more protection because there are older fans and younger fans and for that matter normal-aged fans who can’t really react to a ball being hit 100 mph into the stands,” Villanueva said.
“First and foremost, we want to protect our fans. Without them, we don’t have a game. We don’t want to have people who won’t come to the games because they don’t feel safe.”
The union discussed the issue at separate meetings in Boston with White Sox and Red Sox players last week.
“Obviously that’s not in our control entirely,” White Sox player rep Tyler Flowers said. “We can give our input and our thoughts, but I assume ultimately it’s in MLB’s hands if we approve it. I wouldn’t see any reason why we wouldn’t approve it.
“It’s something you’re always aware of, whether you’re in the dugout or on the field during a game, when you see something like that, especially with as many kids who come to games. You don’t want to see anything happen. When you do it’s very surprising, and you often wonder why we haven’t done anything to help prevent some unnecessary things like that.”
The NHL dealt with a similar issue after 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil was struck by an errant puck during a game March 13, 2002, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus. Cecil died two days later when there was internal bleeding from an artery in her neck.
The following June, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced teams would be required to install protective netting behind each goal. As for the fans who complained about the extra netting altering their view, Bettman responded, “After three minutes people won’t know it’s there.”
Extra netting from dugout to dugout would protect more fans, though not everyone. Every ballpark is different, and older parks like Fenway and Wrigley allow fans extremely close to the action.
Cubs season-ticket holder Don Dando, who has had seats near the home dugout since 1973, said he hopes they don’t extend the netting but he would be OK if they did because he already has seats behind netting at their spring training ballpark in Mesa, Ariz. Dando said he has seen a few people hit with foul balls but never has been hit by one himself in his 42 years in the box seats.
“Most balls shoot up a few rows,” he said. “I felt the seams spinning over my ear once, but I know how to dodge.”
Before games at Wrigley, an usher who asked not to be identified because management doesn’t allow ballpark employees to be interviewed said he reminds everyone sitting in his area to be aware of fouls and bats. The Cubs don’t ask him to do so, but he said he understands that younger fans are constantly using their smartphones and aren’t always paying close attention.
“You can put more netting up, but the bats still can go in the stands,” Cubs pitcher and player rep Jake Arrieta said. “Foul balls still are going to go in the stands. I think maybe the message is more maintaining alertness throughout the entire game or restricting young children from being able to sit real close to the field.”
Some teams are protected from potential lawsuits stemming from ballpark injuries. Colorado, New Jersey, Arizona and Illinois have a baseball facility liability act in place protecting the teams.
Signs are posted on the concourse at Wrigley Field, and a video board message warns fans to be alert, but that’s not always possible. Flowers agreed with Arrieta that asking fans to pay attention always would help, adding, “That’s not a solution in itself, but it would definitely help.”
Flowers pointed out that modern fans have “their tech toys,” and no one can pay attention all the time because of extenuating circumstances.
Aside from safety issues, players also experience mental anguish if they accidentally injure someone seriously with a foul ball or a bat. Cubs second baseman Addison Russell injured a fan in his Wrigley debut in April when the bat slipped out his hands and sailed into the stands. The fan was removed on a stretcher and taken to a hospital, where he recovered.
Players are human, and injuring a fan can affect their focus.
“For sure,” Russell said. “I hospitalized a guy. Baseball is hard enough, and then you have to play a game knowing I had hospitalized a guy in the middle of a game. … It was kind of hard to focus. You just have to regain your focus again. I think the extra netting, we definitely would benefit from it.”
Flowers said he has let a few bats fly into the stands this year, but fortunately no one has been injured seriously. Hitters often get fooled on changeups, causing the player to lose his grip, though Flowers said he has a hard time holding on to bats when the humidity is high.
“The pine tar turns more slimy than tacky,” he said. “And combine that with moist batting gloves, and it’s a tough combination at times.”
MLB is paying attention to the issue, but there has been no movement to require teams to add netting. Villanueva said he hopes MLB makes the right move. He said he wouldn’t let his children sit in an area where foul balls fly, though he understands fans paying top dollar for seats closer to the field don’t want to have their sightlines reduced.
“Fans are split because some people don’t want to have the obstacle in front of them,” he said. “I used to think that way. But I’ve seen it happen a couple of times. If it happens to you, then you probably would change your mind.
“That’s why it’s kind of a gray area. You want the fans to be happy, but at the same time you would rather they be safe. Hopefully they do find a way to keep that fan interaction but also keep it safe.”
Chicago Tribune’s Rhiannon Walker contributed.
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