Earlier this year, ESPN’s Outside the Lines released a report that a woman died in August 2018 after being struck by a foul ball at a Los Angeles Dodgers game. The story was shared in the TGS Slack baseball channel and we all had the same reaction: “Oh my god, did you know about this?”
A death is obviously significant and the fact that it went unreported for nearly six months left a lot of fans in shock. But it was early February, just after the Super Bowl. By the time Spring Training rolled around, the tragedy and any discussion of fan safety had disappeared from the news cycle.
Then on May 29, 2019, a toddler was struck by a foul ball at a game between the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. The images were striking: the batter, Albert Almora Jr. down on one knee; the little girl’s face as she was carried away to receive medical attention; Almora Jr. later being comforted by a ballpark employee after being told the child was going to be ok. Fans and players alike began to call again for expanded netting down the baselines. Just as predictably, other fans complained about how netting would affect their view and game experience, chastising people who they claim don’t pay attention and parents who bring small children to ballgames.
At the time I said little except for a tweet or two. I am very much in favor of expanding netting, but others had written excellent pieces in support of it so I didn’t think my voice was needed. But recently I went to a game at my local AAA park and I could not get the netting discussion out of my mind.
I sat in the lower level close to the field, two sections down from the first base dugout, where there is no protective netting. At first pitch, the sun was still fairly high in the sky and everyone sitting with me along the base line had to shield their eyes to see anything for three or four innings. I was wearing sunglasses but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky to offer respite. I can say with no hesitation that I would not have been able to see a foul ball off the bat well enough to react if it was going at a high rate of speed. It was a topic of discussion among many people around me.
There was a family in the row in front of me with two young boys. Some critics of adding netting would say that they shouldn’t have been in that section or at the game at all. If a ball had been hit into our section, they would have been at risk. But so would I and all the other young, able-bodied people around me. I would love to ask the net critics, at what age does it become “appropriate” to bring a child to the ballpark? What happens to a sport with an aging fan base if kids can’t grow up sitting in the stands? Would they still be interested in a sport they couldn’t see in person until, say, age ten?
And why should anyone expect people to relegate themselves to certain seats? Major League Baseball has made no secret of its desire to grow the game and bring in new fans. Restricting where casual fans can sit raises the barrier to entry to the sport. Now they not only have to pay substantial prices for tickets, concessions, and travel, but they need to research what sections are safe for them to sit in? Maybe they just won’t bother.
Let’s talk next about the maligned “fan not paying enough attention.” Last season I sat in a similar seat, but closer to home plate and behind the netting. I brought my scorecards with me to keep score along with the game. It’s actually something I do to keep myself paying attention – there’s less temptation to check my phone when I can’t risk missing a play. Having the netting in front of me allowed me to focus on the game and my score without worrying that I’d catch a ball between the eyes while logging a play or totaling some numbers.
I’ve been to a lot of games at my local ballpark. I’ve seen foul balls go screaming down the line in either direction, fly all the way back to the press box windows, and even crash through the covered mezzanine level. Anyone who thinks they would be ready and capable at all times of reacting to a foul ball, never letting their guard down, responding to a text, taking a bite of food or setting down a beer, is delusional. That’s the kind of athletic hubris exposed on Always Late with Katie Nolan. It’s not a matter of liking baseball enough or watching the game the right way, it is a matter of split seconds.
I also reject the idea that someone attending a baseball game must sit quietly in their seat, robotically watching the game and never blinking. People have different levels of interest in baseball and different reasons why going to the ballpark is fun. Some are baseball fanatics who go to drink in every second of action. Others like to enjoy the outdoors and catch up with friends or family. They may even, gasp!, like to take pictures to commemorate the great time they had at the game. None of these people are bad fans, and they are not experiencing baseball wrong. If someone failing to appropriately worship the game gets your undies in a major twist, dial back your self-righteousness about 50 notches. They paid for their tickets just like everyone else and that money supports the team all the same, whether they know who’s in center field or not.
The case for expanded netting ultimately comes down to adjustments. I’ve sat behind the netting currently in place and my eyes adjusted. No plays were obscured and the game pulled me in. The feature image for this piece is a photo from that seat, and I can still see the clouds, the bases, the mound, and people on the field. At first glance, I barely notice the netting material. Some of the most expensive seats in any ballpark are behind home plate and that doesn’t seem to bother the folks who sit in them.
Baseball is hardly the first sport to make adjustments in the name of safety. Football has added pads and many iterations of helmets. Fans adjusted and football is still immensely popular. What anyone complaining about watching the game through a net is really saying is that they don’t want to make the adjustment. They would rather risk someone losing their child or grandparent, or someone’s life be turned upside down by medical bills, than spend a few minutes adjusting to a net. They don’t want to think of the greater good when they can tell themselves that an injured fan was at fault because they committed some arbitrary spectator violation. It’s deeply embarrassing that so many people are willing to yell about how little regard they have for other lives.
I’m fortunate that my local ballpark already plans to expand netting to each foul pole for the 2020 season, and I hope every MLB and MiLB team will follow suit. Do it for the players, so they don’t have to carry the guilt of realizing their foul ball hurt someone. Do it for the fans, young and old, even the ones who think they’re too athletic to get surprised by a 100 mph liner. I hope they never have to find out if that’s true. No one’s “fan experience” is worth the price of safety, and baseball is better when we can all enjoy it.
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