Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Protective Netting Debate

On my recent trip throughout the Carolinas, most of the ballparks I visited had protective netting to the far edge of the dugout and in some cases all the way down the lines. In those cases, as there were no outfield sections, not a single seat in the venue had a clear, unobstructed view of the action. I find it crazy that fans 250 feet away require a net to protect them, but nowadays, it seems like I am in the minority and based on recent news articles, MLB will be adding more protective netting starting next season.

Injured Fans

Over the past couple of months, there have been several incidents of fans at major league games being struck by batted balls or broken bats and taken out of the game on a stretcher. Most of these fans (usually women or children) are sitting in the first few rows directly above the dugout, and I will admit that these are dangerous spots to sit. I have sat in similar seats in major and minor league parks around the country and am fortunate to have never been hit by a ball, though there have been a few close calls.

To be sure, injured fans are not a new thing. In 1943, a fan at Griffith Stadium was killed by an errant throw from third baseman Sherry Robertson. Back in 2009 at Mahoning Valley, a baby boy was being held in his father's arms when a foul ball hit him in the back of the head. Thankfully he survived but it took several years of rehabilitation before his life returned to normality. In 2010, a woman died at an independent league game in Texas after a foul ball hit her in the head. One enterprising author has compiled an incomplete list of foul ball injuries this year. On my own trips in the past month, I can recall two incidents: a young boy, sitting about six rows above the dugout, hit in the face by a foul ball in Lowell, suffering a nasty cut; and a fan well down the line in Charlotte being hit in the head with a slow liner while chatting with her friend. In the first incident, there was nothing that could be done; in the second, though, the fan probably should have been looking towards the action.

So why the sudden increase? I have no evidence to support my assertions, but I think there are three primary reasons.

1) Faster pitches in smaller ballparks. The newer parks place fans closer to the action than those old cookie cutter stadiums and pitchers are throwing faster than before. This is leading to more foul balls reaching the seats much more quickly than a decade ago.

2) Casual fans. Over the past 20 years or so, MLB has become much more popular, and the increase is mostly due to the casual fan, someone who really doesn't follow the game but goes for the social aspect. Many of these fans can afford the good seats, or they go as part of a corporate event, but for whatever reason, they find themselves in prime locations. Where they proceed to bury their faces in their smartphones to tell everyone that they are at the game, when they can't even name the starting pitchers. For them, the game is secondary, so they don't pay attention as closely as they should.

3) Social media. Nowadays, every event at the ballpark is immediately reported on. So when a fan gets hit, it becomes news. Years ago, this wasn't the case; even the tragic incident in San Angelo in 2010 did not make national news.

The combination of the first two factors has led to the rapid increase of fans getting hurt by foul balls while the third has raised awareness. Players are also more vocal now, with Justin Verlander the most obvious example. This makes sense, nobody wants to be responsible for injuring or killing someone else accidentally, so the MLBPA has lobbied for more netting in the past, only to be rebuffed by the owners, who want to keep the premium season-ticket holders happy.

Media Reaction

All of these incidents have made protective netting has a hot-button topic and I have heard a number of sports media personalities weigh in. Mike Greenberg of ESPN's Mike & Mike recounted taking his children to Wrigley Field and being given seats right above the dugout, where he spent the afternoon being "vigilant", concluding that something had to be done. Buck Martinez echoed the sentiment on a recent Blue Jays broadcast, and you can find several articles online, such as this piece arguing for netting from foul pole to foul pole.

In all of these cases, the protective netting in Japan is mentioned. However, none of these people actually spent time in Japan going to games. Let me tell you as someone who sat through a couple of hundred NPB games, the netting makes a difference down the lines. I am not going to say it ruins the experience, but it made going to games there quite frustrating. And there is a difference between watching a game from behind the plate, where you are looking straight out, and past the bases, where you are looking back at an angle.

The advent of the netting in hockey is also brought up as a comparison. The difference between the two is that the hockey netting doesn't interfere with the good seats, it really only impacts the upper level sections behind the goal and during the action, it is not that noticeable as the netting is far away from the viewer.

Idiots Get Involved

So we have a season ticket holder in Oakland (recall that the A's play at the ballpark with the largest foul territory in the majors) who sits in section 211 (yes 211) complaining that 3 or 4 times a game, a ball comes into her section. The solution? Cover the entire ballpark with protective netting, from foul pole to foul pole. Yes, this single individual would rather inconvenience thousands upon thousands of fans instead of herself and her family. Simpler solutions? Move to a section behind the netting or bring a glove. Nope, instead a class-action lawsuit is filed. As is the norm in America these days, the answer is to blame someone else and ask them to solve the problem, rather than take care of it yourself.

What to Do?

Obviously, the netting behind home plate is necessary. And with the changes to the game, another section of netting above the dugouts should be installed, though at major league parks, it should protect the lower rows only, giving fans the option to sit in row 25 or 30 and have a clear view of the pitcher and batter. But that's it. There is no need to have netting all the way down the lines. It does detract from the experience and will only protect those who are not paying attention. BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte is like this, with a small net atop the dugout, and I had no problem with it, because I could stand on the concourse and get a clear view.

I understand the desire to protect fans but there are limits. The unfortunate death of the fan who fell over the railing from the second deck in Atlanta last week has led to a call for increasing the height of  barriers, but the more you do that, the more they impact the view if you are in the first few rows of the upper deck. At some point, people have to take responsibility for themselves. 

Let me be frank. If you are sitting at a baseball game 20-30 rows up behind the dugouts or anywhere past the bases and you get hit by a foul ball, it is your own fault. You are simply not paying attention to the game. In Toronto I was a section or two past first base and Ben Revere hit a scorcher that went just a few feet above my head, landing three or four rows behind. What did everyone do? They ducked and dodged, because they were paying attention. It was definitely frightening for a second or two and fans chattered about it for a few minutes afterwards, but no harm was done.

I really have no idea what MLB will decide. For the most part, I've been priced out of the good seats in New York, so I always sit in the upper deck, where it doesn't matter. But in other cities, I sometimes can pick up a cheap ticket between the bases on the secondary market. I really enjoy sitting close and having a clear view of the entire field. I have never feared for my safety, because I've been attending baseball for years and understand the potential for injury, so I watch the game. But if there are no more lower bowl seats with a clear view, I won't be forking over wads of cash to sit there and yet another pleasure in life will be lost due to those who cannot think for themselves.



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