It seems strange that this column needs to exist at all. No one is in favor of innocent bystanders suffering bodily harm just for attending a baseball game. No one would say it’s OK that several times a season, a fan is hit with a foul ball in such a way that he or she sustains an injury of various gravity.
Last year, a woman died.
This is preventable.
Teams and Major League Baseball take steps to prevent it, by adding nets and then expanding those nets. These measures have proven effective at protecting the people seated behind the nets. So it would stand to reason that if people, like a young girl seated down the third-base line in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, are still getting hit and still getting hurt, that those injuries could be prevented by expanding the nets further.
Just a short column, then. Just a reminder that, unlike so many horrible realities and terrible freak accidents that shake our understanding of order and goodness, injuries caused by foul balls or broken bats are completely preventable. The solution is not only obvious but in fact made self-evident by the existing safety structures.
In 2015, following a spate of serious fan injuries, the commissioner’s office issued a recommendation to teams that they extend their protective netting to the near end of the dugouts. By the start of the 2018 season, they all had — and they all went further.
In a statement released at the time, Rob Manfred said, “Providing baseball fans with a variety of seating options when they come to the ballpark, including seats behind protective netting, is important.” It is important. And those were laudable measures that have presumably protected an incalculable number of fans who were able to take their safety for granted. But why not make as many seats as possible as safe as possible? Why present safe seating as an option and not the norm? Why not just extend the netting foul pole to foul pole?
It seems obvious to me and to many people today in the wake of what happened in last night’s game. Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. rocketed a foul ball 90-some mph into the seats and hit a toddler who was rushed to a nearby hospital. On video, the whole stadium was thrown into the vibrating uneasy silence that follows a collective gasp. Almora was visibly distraught, and only more so later when he spoke to a security guard near the section where the girl had been hit.
Obvious to Almora, who said later, “Right now, obviously, I want to put a net around the whole stadium.”
Obvious to Kris Bryant, who told ESPN, "Let's just put fences up around the whole field."
Obvious to a few baseball players who have since tweeted out calls for increased netting. For fans’ sake. For their sake, too, as the bearers of unintentional weapons that have gotten only more dangerous as pitchers throw harder and hitters get stronger.
It’s not obvious to everyone. There are still people who complain that more netting is an overreaction, a skittish capitulation to distracted fans. There’s a belief that people just don’t want to have nets obstructing their experience — but if that’s the case, then why are the sections behind home plate, which have long been behind nets, among the most desirable and expensive?
The larger argument against increased netting is that it shouldn’t be necessary, that if you’re paying sufficient attention to the game (that if you’re not on your phone) it wouldn’t be necessary. This implies that attending a baseball game is something that people can be more or less deserving of, that you earn your seat in the stadium with your baseball bonafides and reaction time. It’s ableist, exclusionary and creates a false barrier to entry for intentionally populist entertainment.
(Also: Checking your phone is a moral neutral act. As a preoccupation, it’s become shorthand for an easily bored generation addicted to instant gratification and shallow validation, but you’re not a better person for forgoing the technological allure for the three-plus hours it takes to watch a baseball game. And teams don’t really want you to anyway. Attend a live baseball game these days, and the scoreboard will implore you to post your in-game selfies with a specified hashtag. All of which is to say nothing of what will happen when fans are able to gamble in-game by placing bets from their phones.)
Ultimately, this is a case where the stakes of the two sides are so mismatched as to render any counterargument moot. If you don’t need netting — or you think you don’t need netting — to feel safe at a baseball game, then it’s a matter of whim, of what you prefer and a natural inclination to impose that preference on the world around you. If you want or need nets — if you’re old or young or less than perfectly mobile or vision-impaired or distracted or had too many beers or not enough hours of sleep or are holding a novelty plastic baseball cap full of ice cream — it’s a matter of potentially life-altering injury.
And yet: Teams have yet to install the kind of comprehensive netting that is standard in Japanese and Korean baseball stadiums. They haven’t done so proactively and even as fans continue to get hurt, the reaction has not been sufficient. We know this because Wednesday a young girl got injured at a baseball game. And she didn’t have to.
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