Baseball Safety

Fans scrambling to get out of the way of batted balls is a common sight at baseball games, one that more protective netting could help eliminate. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

 Katie Strang, ESPN.com | Jan. 19, 2016

Editor’s note: In the days leading up to Jan. 25, Rob Manfred’s one-year anniversary as MLB commissioner, we asked our writers to offer one change or innovation they would make to improve baseball if the sport started over today.

The change: Major League Baseball requires protective netting at all ballparks belonging to its member clubs. Dugout to dugout. Plain and simple.

Already, the league has taken an important step in this direction, but there remains a critical distinction from the current policy to the one proposed here. Last month, MLB announced that, after an in-depth study, the league recommends teams to employ protective netting between the near-ends of both dugouts and within 70 feet of home plate. The key word here? Recommends. As in, suggests. As in, encouraged yet not at all mandatory or enforced.

Have you ever seen a recommended meal plan for the week? The daily caloric intake you are encouraged to follow? If you are anything like me, this is a very, very loose suggestion.

Now, some clubs are already in compliance. Plenty more have publicly vowed to become compliant, at their home ballparks, and some additionally at their minor-league parks and spring training facilities as well. Other clubs have remained conspicuously silent.

Under the current recommendation, the league has tried to strike a logical balance between fan safety and fan interaction. Under my new proposal, fan safety becomes paramount.

Yes, some fans will be viewing games from behind a safety net, but you can bet that view is a hell of a lot better than the view you’d have after getting smoked in the face from a foul ball that hit you flush in the eye.

How it would work: All teams must erect protective netting that extends from the far end of each dugout.

Provide all member clubs one year to become compliant with the mandate, after which a team would be subject to losing a first-round draft pick as a penalty for each year they are not in accordance with the rules.

Practically speaking, each ballpark and its dimensions and configuration is unique, so that makes a mandatory rule such as this one somewhat difficult. There is also the additional impediment of working with different local and state laws and building codes. But, the Commissioner’s Office, in that same December press release, also announced that it has retained a consultant to assist in these matters, so that consultant can help clubs make the conversion in a reasonable, cost-effective manner (this service, by the way, is available to member clubs free of charge).

Different strategies may work for different parks. A retractable feature could work for one park – where the netting could be pulled like a curtain up during half-innings for increased fan interaction with players – but not so realistic in another.

A team may have to investigate other options, such as offering affected season-ticket holders options to move sections, or increased perks. Maybe those fans have a twice-yearly roundtable/chalk talk/town hall event with selected players, the manager and/or the general manager. Or maybe the team plies them with other items? Seriously, I’d bet free beers and unlimited chicken tenders will almost always console even the most aggrieved of customers.

Why it would help baseball: Fans won’t get hurt. Or at least at nearly the alarming rate we see now (According to a 2014 Bloomberg News report, approximately 1,750 fans get hurt each year by batted balls).

During my first week covering the Detroit Tigers this past season, I saw a fan struck on the head by a foul ball, after which she had to be hospitalized. In speaking with players after the game, they were both emphatic about the need for more fan protection and baffled as to why such a mandate had not been implemented yet. Players told me they had repeatedly brought it up at union meetings, but felt like they had little influence on a matter. Everyone had their own horror story about seeing a teammate’s errant foul ball hit a little kid, a time at the plate they felt physically ill after seeing a fan leave the stands following a hazardous encounter.

What shocked me more was the victim-blaming. Pay more attention, some folks would implore of the fans in the danger-area seats. Honestly, as if a person would be any more prepared to elude a blazing ball whether or not they were checking their fantasy roster on a mobile device (not to mention all the in-game promotions, scoreboard novelties and mascot mumbo-jumbo that distracts fans as well)? They say the average reaction time to avoid a collision with a dangerous foul ball is less than a second. I don’t even move that fast when it’s pizza night at my house. Let’s be real.

How realistic is it: The fact that the league has already responded to the public outcry for increased safety measures from last season shows that it realizes this is a serious matter. Simply invoking the “baseball rule” (a fan’s assumption of risk in attending a game) is no longer enough.

It’s only a matter of time before some gets gravely injured from a situation like this, and that is not a risk major-league baseball should be willing to take. Every fan injury stoppage tends to cast a pall on the game. Imagine someone losing their life? Not worth it. Not even close. In 2002, a 13-year-old girl attending a Columbus Blue Jackets game died after getting struck by a puck, prompting the NHL to erect mandatory netting the next season. Time for major league baseball to follow suit – before, not after – something similarly tragic occurs.