Column: It’s time now for major league teams to expand netting to protect fans as much as possible


The television is almost always on in baseball clubhouses, though players rarely do more than glance at the screen while they go about their pregame routines. But images on Wednesday from Yankee Stadium, where a young girl was hit in the face with a foul ball, disrupted the Angels’ routines and drew their fearful attention.

“A few of us in here saw it and quickly said a prayer for her. That’s scary stuff,” pitcher Matt Shoemaker said Thursday. “I’m actually glad they didn’t cover it a lot on the news and show that stuff a lot. They showed it once, in passing.”

The girl, who has not been identified, was struck by a line drive off the bat of New York Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier and down the third-base line at an estimated 105 miles per hour. Frazier and his teammates were distraught while medical personnel tended to her and transported her to a local hospital; several members of the visiting Minnesota Twins also wore somber expressions when it became clear the girl was badly hurt.


“It’s a sad situation. I saw it on TV. It breaks my heart,” Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols said. “For me to have five kids, you think right away, ‘That could be my kid.’”

Reaction around baseball was swift and promising Thursday. The San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners announced plans to expand the netting at their stadiums for 2018 and Commissioner Rob Manfred, who called the incident “extremely upsetting for everyone in our game,” said that Major League Baseball would redouble its efforts to expand the scope of netting in ballparks.

In 2015 MLB “encouraged” teams to extend netting to protect seats between the near ends of both dugouts and within 70 feet of home plate but did not mandate it. Some teams have extended the netting to the far edge of the dugouts, and the New York Mets at mid-season extended theirs beyond that. The Dodgers and Angels expanded their netting before the 2016 season, but the Angels’ netting doesn’t quite reach the near end of the dugouts.

Angels spokesman Tim Mead said the team has been compliant with MLB guidelines and said additional extension of the netting isn’t imminent “at this point.” The Dodgers did not respond to two inquiries regarding potentially expanding their netting. Netting commonly extends to the foul poles in Japanese baseball.

It’s time for every MLB team to lengthen the netting beyond the dugouts. No safety measure will safeguard every spectator, but if the technology exists to add a level of protection, it’s foolish not to use it. Some fans fumed when the NHL, reacting to the death of 13-year-old Columbus Blue Jackets fan Brittanie Cecil two days after she was struck in the head by a deflected puck, ordered teams to install protective screens behind each goal. But the netting soon became an accepted part of the scenery. That can happen in baseball too. “I think they’ll get used to it, just like anything else,” Pujols said.

The Yankees, citing medical privacy laws, haven’t updated the girl’s status. Her injury wasn’t a matter of her not paying attention or, according to accounts, of a companion neglecting to protect her. “They’re projectiles, and even fans that are paying attention get, I think, surprised by the velocity of these balls and bats, unfortunately, that break, or you lose your handle,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Thursday before his team’s 4-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians.

If professional athletes can’t elude a baseball flying at 100 mph — Shoemaker has a scar on the right side of his head from emergency brain surgery he required after being struck by a line drive last September — it’s unrealistic to expect fans to avoid a baseball hurtling toward them.

Adding netting makes sense. “I don’t think it would be something that’s too difficult to do,” Shoemaker said. “Logistically, I don’t know the reasons why we haven’t had it out there yet. It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry. Maybe some fans complained about the line of sight, I would guess, as an argument. But people sit behind the plate all the time and it’s fine. If that’s the way to fix it, then maybe so be it.”

Pujols recalled being devastated when, while playing with the St. Louis Cardinals, a ball he hit foul struck a little boy in the head. Hitting a peer bothered him no less: He was so shaken after he hit Padres pitcher Chris Young in the face with a liner in 2008 that then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa removed him from the game.

“Your head is not in the game anymore,” Pujols said. “I’m sure Todd was thinking about that the whole game.”

Shoemaker has two children, 2½ and almost 1. He makes sure they’re in the Angels’ family section, which is elevated and tucked beneath an overhang, or in the room reserved for players’ family members. He wants his kids — and every child — to love baseball as much he does, but he wants them to be safe.

MLB must help ensure that. “It’s a fun experience for them,” Shoemaker said, “but it scares me internally when I see little kids sitting right behind the dugout with no net. That’s scary. What happened was unfortunate but hopefully she’s OK.”

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen