After Numerous Foul Ball Fan Injuries, Baseball Reconsiders Protective Netting | WOSU Radio

After Numerous Foul Ball Fan Injuries, Baseball Reconsiders Protective Netting

Jul 13, 2019

Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. dropped to one knee during the fourth inning last May, hands over his face in horror. He had just watched a foul ball fly off his bat and strike a 2-year-old girl in the head, fracturing her skull.

The incident, every baseball hitter's nightmare, was not a one-off. Last month, a fan was hit during a Chicago White Sox game and another during a Los Angeles Dodgers game.

Last year, a 79-year-old woman died from a foul ball that flew over the netting behind home plate at Dodger Stadium.

This season has seen a number of foul ball injuries, reigniting a debate about whether to extend protective netting at baseball stadiums.

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Kris Bryant, Almora's teammate on the Cubs, wants to see more safety precautions taken.

"It's so sad," Bryant said to an ESPN reporter after the May 29 game at Minute Maid Park. "I don't know what we can do. Let's just put fences up around the whole field. ... I think any safety measure we can take to make sure fans are safe, we should do it."

Bryant isn't the only one taking up the call. Other players and fans have pushed for more safety, especially after the foul ball death in 2018, the MLB's first in nearly 50 years.

While foul balls aren't new, conditions at games have changed. Players are more powerful, the seats have gotten closer and fans can be more distracted.

John Eric Goff, a physics professor at the University of Lynchburg, studies the science of sports. He thinks the current netting is insufficient.

"It takes one second for the ball to travel 130 feet," Goff said, "and that's just past the netting in a lot of major league baseball parks."

Dina Simpson recalls the night she was injured at a Lake County Captains minor league game in Ohio, sitting just beyond the stadium's protective netting with her kids and husband.

"I, too, thought, 'Oh, if a ball comes my way, I'm just going to catch it or duck,' " Simpson said, "but in that moment of chaos your brain's not even processing what's happening before that ball has come at you."

Her husband yelled for her to duck, but she couldn't react in time. She says she can no longer see out of her right eye and hasn't gone to a game since.

She hoped to get help from the team but says that never happened.

The Lake County Captains general manager, Neil Stein, told NPR he couldn't talk about the incident. But in an interview with a local television station, he spoke about league disclaimers for both major and minor league parks.

"We have stickers on the back of our seats about fan safety, about paying attention at all times, we have it on our ticket-back language," said Stein, speaking with Cleveland Fox 8.

He is referring to liability protection under the "Baseball Rule," a tort law ruling nearly as old as the major leagues itself. The rule makes it difficult for injured parties to sue over their injuries.

Teams have disclaimers posted throughout their stadiums and, as Stein described, printed on the backs of ticket stubs.

Still, as more people are injured, players and fans continue to push for better safety. In 2018, all 30 MLB teams extended their netting around home plate. The Major League Baseball Players Association has twice called for netting from foul pole to foul pole, modeled after Japanese baseball stadiums.

But there's been resistance, including the argument that netting would obstruct the view of high-priced seats. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has also said that while fan safety is important, it would be difficult to adopt uniform standards.

"We've made tremendous strides in the last four years in terms of the amount of netting in ballparks," Manfred said Monday during an interview with ESPN's Mike Golic. "The way we've achieved that is we have worked with the clubs individually, recognizing that each ballpark is different in terms of the way it's laid out, in terms of the infrastructure that's in place and we have constantly encouraged them to make improvements."

So far, the only team to undertake the pole-to-pole safety precaution is the White Sox. The Dodgers, Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates all plan to extend their stadium netting this season.

Manfred said he expects more discussions about netting extensions at all parks to happen in the off-season.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The biggest stars in baseball take the field in Cleveland tonight for the annual celebration of Major League Baseball the All-Star Game. But several scary incidents have marred the first half of this baseball season. Fans have been hit by foul balls, and players are calling for greater protection. Ben Bergman has more on that from Los Angeles.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: Last month, less than a year after a woman died after being struck by a ball at Dodger Stadium, a teenager was hit in the head as she got up to use the restroom. Here's how it sounded on SportsNet LA.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: A foul just beyond the protective netting.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: A pretty good advertisement for more netting.

BERGMAN: The 13-year-old suffered a concussion. That was not long after a woman was hit during a White Sox game and two separate incidents at Houston Astros games. A woman broke her jaw, and before that, a 2-year-old suffered a concussion and internal bleeding. This season's injuries have left players distraught and calling for more protection for fans. Here was the Cubs' Kris Bryant on ESPN.

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KRIS BRYANT: I don't know what we can do. I mean, let's just - just put fences up around the whole field. I mean, it's so sad when you see stuff like that happen. And any safety measure we can take to, you know, make sure that fans are safe, we should do it.

BERGMAN: The players union has repeatedly called for more netting in its contract negotiations, but the league, which wouldn't comment for this story, has always rejected their proposals. Owners have been seen as reluctant to ruin the view for their highest paying patrons. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said recently that while fan safety is important, it's difficult to adopt uniform standards because every ballpark is different. Last season, all big league teams did expand netting to at least the far end of the dugouts, but they should reach all the way to the foul poles, as is the standard in Japan. That's according to John Eric Goff, a physics professor at the University of Lynchburg who studies the science of sports.

JOHN ERIC GOFF: The netting is definitely insufficient.

BERGMAN: Foul balls are nothing new. Goff says what's changed is batters have become more powerful. The seats have gotten closer and fans are more distracted, often looking down at their smartphones.

GOFF: It takes one second for the ball to travel 130 feet, and that's just past the netting in a lot of Major League Baseball parks.

BERGMAN: And minor league ones, as Dina Simpson knows all too well.

DINA SIMPSON: I thought, oh, if a ball comes my way, I'm just going to catch it or duck, you know? But in that moment of chaos, your brain's not even processing what's happening before that ball has come at you.

BERGMAN: Simpson was sitting just behind the netting at a Lake County Captains game outside Cleveland two years ago with her three kids and husband.

SIMPSON: Yeah. I heard him say, Dina, watch out, except he didn't even get to finish the sentence. Before I knew it, the ball smacked me in my right eye directly.

BERGMAN: Simpson says she ended up permanently losing vision in that eye and will never go to another game again. She says she never got any help from the team. The Captains general manager, Neil Stein, told NPR he couldn't talk about the incident, but he told Cleveland's Fox 8 that Simpson and all fans are adequately warned to pay attention to balls leaving the field.

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NEIL STEIN: We have stickers on the back of our seats about fan safety, about paying attention at all times. We have it on our ticket back language.

BERGMAN: That tiny disclaimer on the back of tickets, whether the minors or the majors, is known in tort law as simply the baseball rule. It says if you buy a ticket, you assume all risk and danger that are part of the game. Commissioner Manfred said recently the league was unlikely to require more netting this season. Still, five teams - the Cubs, Dodgers, Rangers, Pirates and Nationals - now say they will extend netting on their own. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.