The debate around the safety of fans from foul balls at Major League Baseball games and what can be done to protect them was renewed last week when a haunting scene descended upon a Chicago Cubs-Houston Astros game.
Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. hit a line drive down the third-base line that rocketed into the Minute Maid Park crowd and struck a young fan. The child was soon taken to a hospital, leaving behind a crying Almora and a number of concerned players.
MLB took a major step in 2018 when all 30 ballparks extended their foul ball netting to at least the far ends of the dugouts, but that didn’t stop the child in Houston from getting struck by a line drive. Or an older fan from dying after being struck in the head at Dodger Stadium last year.
Both incidents, plus another in the minor leagues days after the one in Houston, have renewed calls for even more expansive protective netting. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged those calls on Tuesday according to the Associated Press, though he signaled that any change will have to come in the winter.
Rob Manfred: ‘Very difficult’ to make in-season changes
While discussing expanded protective netting, Manfred used some of MLB’s favorite excuses to avoid making any promises: The need to capitulate to fans that value a marginally better view over the safety of children and the physical difficulty encountered by billion-dollar organizations when trying to install nets.
Via the AP:
"Look, I think it is important that we continue to focus on fan safety," Manfred said. "If that means that the netting has to go beyond the dugouts, so be it. Each ballpark is different. The reason I hesitate with 'beyond the dugout,' I mean, a lot of clubs are beyond the dugout already. But there is a balance here. We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don't want to sit behind nets. I think that we have struck the balance in favor of fan safety so far, and I think we will continue to do that going forward."
Manfred did say he believed the conversation around expanded netting would continue into the offseason, which is probably the earliest we can expect any sort of real change.
"It's very difficult given how far the clubs have gone with the netting to make changes during the year, because they really are structural issues," Manfred said. "But because safety is so important, I'm sure that conversation will begin and continue into the offseason."
So it will be the same nets at MLB stadiums going forward.
Is there an endgame when it comes to foul ball nets?
For years, the average protective netting of MLB stadiums has slowly expanded down the foul lines. Making it past the dugouts was seen as a major milestone, but issues clearly remain. That raises a simple question: What can MLB do to effectively end this issue once and for all?
The answer probably lies at the foul pole, though a real push for that would certainly be met by complaints from fans who want a 100 percent clear view of the field.
However, there’s a desire for more netting from people who have seen up close what happens when there’s a lack of it.
“Let’s just put fences up around the whole field,” Cubs star Kris Bryant said after the Almora incident. “There’s a lot of kids coming to the games. Young kids, wanna watch us play. And the ball’s coming hard. The speed of the game is quick. I think any safety measure we can take to make sure that fans are safe, we should do it.”
The daughter of the fan who died at Dodger Stadium — again, a fan died last year at Dodger Stadium — said something similar in the offseason, calling for nets to be raised vertically.
“Raise it a little higher, what’s the hurt in that?” she reasonably asked.
In a bizarre dynamic, the MLB Players Union has proposed that kind comprehensive netting from foul pole to foul pole in both 2007 and 2012 to help protect spectators, but the objections of a certain group of fans has also been reason enough for MLB to hold off from such changes.
Japanese and Korean leagues have used this kind of expansive netting for years with no problem, perhaps because it takes your eyes about 10 seconds to adjust to a thin net hanging in front of you. It’s a small price to pay when risk of injury and death to fans in the stands is the alternative.
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