If you take a look at every one of Major League Baseball’s 30 stadiums, you’ll notice a couple of universally shared features. A pitching mound located precisely 60’6” away. Four bases spread 90 feet apart from one another. Foul poles made of metal and colored yellow. Batter’s boxes and foul lines made of white chalk. These are all features integral to ensuring, regardless of the team and stadium, that the universal rules of baseball will apply.
A ubiquitous feature among these stadiums, albeit one nowhere to be found in baseball’s official rulebook, is netting behind home plate and its immediate perimeter, put in place to ensure fan safety. The league would be condemned for leaving a fan’s safety in their own hands and ability to dodge an errant heater of a foul ball. Hence, the net.
That universal train of thought, however, applies only to fans sitting behind the net or in the immediate vicinity. The decision to place netting behind a team’s dugout and the nearby perimeter is left up to individual ball clubs. These lower-level seats, similar to those right behind home plate, are a danger zone, leaving fans at the mercy of physics and luck, but teams leave their fans with a completely unobstructed view between them and the action, and subsequently between them and any errant projectiles.
The teams that have not implemented netting to protect their fans have played Russian roulette with six in the chamber and the safety off by allowing games to proceed without protective netting, failing to take the most minimum of efforts to ensure fan safety. This past Wednesday, another shot rang out.
In the fifth inning of Wednesday’s game in the Bronx featuring the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees, Todd Frazier sharply pulled a ball foul right over the Twins’ dugout. The ball, traveling at a blistering 105 mph, was in the air for merely a second before colliding with the face of a young girl.
Yankee Stadium collectively fell into a deafening silence as fans in the surrounding area frantically tracked down the attention of nearby usher. The game stopped. Frazier fell to a knee. Players were reduced to tears.
The latest reports indicate that the child who was struck is doing fine. Whether or not she’ll need surgery remains ambiguous.
This tragedy can be chalked up to pure negligence on the part of Major League Baseball, a negligence that has the potential to forever alter the life of a child whose only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Teams shouldn’t believe that telling fans to beware of flying objects simply is enough to ensure safety.
Assuming the majority of fans have the ability to make the split-second decision of dodging a projectile traveling at more than 100 mph is unreasonable, especially when their guard is unlikely to be up for every single pitch. Even if every fan’s focus was laser sharp on the action at hand, not everyone is capable of reacting in time.
The precedent to ensure fan safety should already have been well-established. On Aug. 30, 2010, a 6-year-old girl was struck by a foul ball off the bat of Melky Cabrera, resulting in a traumatic brain injury and fractures in more than 30 places. No child or their parent, or any fan for that matter, should have to worry about dodging projectiles whizzing by their heads at dangerous velocities. This incident, combined with the close calls and near misses that don’t receive attention, should definitely serve as the nail in the coffin regarding the necessity for additional safety nets.
Unfortunately, incidents of stray foul balls striking innocent bystanders are not by any means a rarity. Rather, they’re quite common. According to a 2014 Bloomberg Report, an estimated 1,750 fans are injured per year by foul balls. While it is difficult to concretely state each foul ball-related incident could have been prevented, e.g. a hard-line drive that makes its way into the second deck, a majority likely occur in a stadium’s lower levels, places where a net would be implemented.
The problem has been well-documented and the solution is blatantly obvious, but all attempts at universal change have been squashed. The Major League Baseball Players Association has tried to facilitate change and implement a league-wide policy that normalizes netting over a broader perimeter. This notion was denied.
When asked on the matter, commissioner Rob Manfred could only utter a cop-out of an answer, telling the New York Daily News, “I think the reluctance to do it on a league-wide basis only relates to the difficulty of having a single rule that fits 30 stadiums that obviously are not designed the same way.”
Rather confront the problem head-on, Manfred has decided to neglect the issue because fields look different. Sure, every ballparks accounts for foul poles, baselines, the distance between bases, the distance from the mound to the plate, but implementing nets is too hard because the stadiums have different dimensions. Because implementing a “put up nets where someone can get hit” rule is rocket science.
Instead of addressing the legitimacy of this problem and taking action to ensure incidents such as the one at Yankee Stadium don’t happen again, Manfred has elected for the blind pride of ensuring that fans have an unhindered viewing experience — a blindness which, if unaddressed, will get someone killed.
I am not of the belief that if netting were placed around the entirety of the perimeter of ballparks, foul ball-related incidents would suddenly cease to exist. Of the 100,000 foul balls hit per year, there are bound to be a couple that sneak their way over netting and are hit hard enough to do some damage; netting is not the catch-all solution. But what a net would do is drastically reduce both the potential number of foul ball-related incidents and the severity of those that do occur.
Regarding fan safety, Japan is light-years ahead of the United States. In addition to the netting behind home plate, netting is placed around the dugout and stretches all the way down to the foul poles — but the innovations don’t stop there.
At the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants, ushers are trained to specifically address foul ball-related injuries. The second a foul ball heads toward a section, ushers blow a whistle and flash a light to alert fans. Once the ball lands, ushers rush over to the site of the ball and ensure no one was harmed.
The Tokyo Dome also has reserved sections for fans who wish to view the action without nets blocking their path. Known as “excite seats,” fans have an unobstructed view of the action, but each seat comes with a helmet and gloves. These fans consider watching ballgames without the safety of netting a miniature adrenaline rush, and considering the damage stray baseballs have caused in the past, this claim is legitimate.
By no means whatsoever do I expect Major League Baseball to implement these protective measures. Hell, the league can’t even implement the most basic of safety measures. These additional steps toward safety may seem extreme, but when a thinly veiled structure is the difference between life and death, no options should be thrown out the window.
To say protective netting could save the life of a fan sounds grandiose, but all it takes is a series of unfortunate circumstances to blend together on one fateful day before the following headline shows up all across newspapers across the country: “Fan killed by foul ball.”
If Manfred does not take the initiative and continues to allow teams to leave their fans exposed without a legitimate method of ensuring their safety, someone will die. It’s not a matter of if, but when. The blood will be on Major League Baseball’s hands, and it shouldn’t take a tragedy for change to come.