Major League Baseball should make it easier for teams like the Phillies and mandate expanded protective netting

fansafety

John Harper | NEW YORK DAILY NEWS | Updated: Thursday, January 12, 2017

Slowly, change seems to be coming on the issue of fan safety in baseball, specifically additional protective netting in ballparks. Unfortunately, it’s not being driven by Major League Baseball but individual franchises, and some perhaps only as a reaction to serious injuries and/or bad publicity.

On Friday the Phillies announced they are extending their netting to the far end of the dugouts at Citizens Bank Ballpark, thus becoming the fifth of 30 MLB teams to protect fans sitting in the areas behind the dugouts.

It’s the right thing to do, and they should be applauded for it, but would they have done it if shortstop Freddy Galvis hadn’t lambasted the team — and MLB — for not having such netting in place last August after his foul ball hit a young girl in the face?

The Phillies declined comment beyond a brief statement calling it “a reasonable step which will provide additional protection for fans,’’ but it seems safe to say Galvis’ highly-publicized comments put pressure on the team to do something.

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Meanwhile, no other team has announced the intent to add more netting, but a baseball source says the Cardinals are — at the very least — seriously considering a similar extension of their netting.

In that case, they too may be reacting to a serious injury — a man named Rick Cusick lost the sight in his left eye after being struck by a foul ball off the bat of Tommy Pham while sitting in seats behind the visitors’ dugout in Busch Stadium last August.

As bad as that sounds, Cusick’s wife, Laura, said the ball struck her husband with such force that he was actually fortunate his injury wasn’t more severe.

“It’s pretty miraculous there was no brain injury,’’ Laura said by phone last week. “It broke the orbital bones, and his cheekbone and jaw, and doctors couldn’t save Rick’s eyesight, but if the ball hadn’t hit him square in the eye, they said it could have been worse.

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“The ball was hit so hard there was just no time to react.”

HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” demonstrated that a ball with an exit velocity of 95 mph — the approximate speed of a hard line drive — travels 75 feet, about the distance of fans sitting behind the dugout, in just over 6/10 of a second. For some reference, a blink of an eye is 1/3 of second.

For a variety of reasons such incidents are becoming all-too familiar at ballparks around the country, as I detailed in the Daily News last May, and baseball has reacted with little urgency.

Before last season, as a reaction to some serious fan injuries in 2015, MLB chose only to recommend that teams add to their protective netting with what amounted to a modest widening beyond the area behind home plate.

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Four teams, the Rangers, Twins, Nationals, and Royals, elected to do more, installing netting to the far end of the dugouts, as the Phillies — and perhaps the Cardinals — have decided to do for 2017.

A fan attending a Red Sox-A's game suffered "life-threatening" injuries after getting hit by a broken bat.

A fan attending a Red Sox-A’s game suffered “life-threatening” injuries after getting hit by a broken bat.

(JIM ROGASH/GETTY IMAGES)

And with fans sitting closer to the field, creating more intimate settings, and distractions (cellphones, MLB apps, Jumbotrons) becoming more prevalent at the ballpark, fans are in greater peril than ever before.

By May of last season, Rangers’ VP of Business Operations Rob Matwick told me he’d already seen examples where the netting had saved fans behind the dugout from potential injury.

Last week Twins’ communications director Dustin Morse offered a similar assessment of the first season with extended netting at Target Field.

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“We saw some rockets hit the net that potentially could have caused serious injury,’’ Morse said. “Prior to last year, we watched from above and saw how many times fans were at risk because of hard-hit balls going into the stands.

“As an organization we just decided that we couldn’t sleep well at night if the ballpark wasn’t safe for our fans and we didn’t do anything about it.’’

Even with this type of feedback, however, commissioner Rob Manfred told me recently that MLB hasn’t made any decision on whether to recommend, urge, or insist that teams do more with netting in 2017.

“I’m not ready to draw any conclusions,’’ Manfred said. “We’re talking to clubs about what they’re planning to do individually, what their experience was.’’

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Manfred said that fan resistance to the netting is something he hears a lot about from the public, and individual teams indicate that as a reason they’re reluctant to add more netting — or even discuss it.

The Yankees and Mets both declined comment through team spokesmen on the subject, as they did last May, other than to say there are no plans to extend their netting in 2017. Both teams have netting that extend from the near edge of each dugout.

“Obviously fan safety is crucial for us,’’ said Manfred, “(but) this is a topic where you hear from fans, and what you hear from them is all on the other side of it. I’m not saying that’s outcome-determinant. I’m just saying that’s what people call about.

“Obviously any incident is one incident too many. We’ll continue to evolve on this question.’’

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Just as obviously, MLB and its teams are looking out for the bottom line, not wanting to risk losing fans that pay for expensive seats. But just as laws were eventually adopted forcing people to use seat belts in cars and motorcycle helmets, despite pushback from the public, safety should be the priority.

Washington expanded netting at Nationals Park, but why doesn't MLB mandate this league-wide?

Washington expanded netting at Nationals Park, but why doesn’t MLB mandate this league-wide?

(COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS)

In any case, whatever concerns many teams may have regarding their fans, the Rangers and Twins say resistance was minimal once they put the extended netting in place.

“Once fans got used to it being there,’’ Morse said, “they say they don’t even realize it’s there. And we were pro-active with our players, telling them to flip balls over the netting to fans so that connection wasn’t lost.’’

Even if the netting does cut down on such interaction, which fans tell teams is important to them, it seems a small price to pay to avoid serious injury.

Certainly players like Galvis have made their voice heard on the subject, and understandably so. They don’t want to be responsible for causing serious injury or perhaps someday killing someone, something that happened in 1970 when Manny Mota’s foul ball killed a 14-year-old boy at Dodger Stadium.

Sources say the Players Association has raised the matter during collective bargaining negotiations, though it hasn’t been a priority.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark declined comment through a spokesman, but communications director Greg Bouris told me simply: “Players support increased netting.’’

Meanwhile, the injuries continue to mount at the ballpark, and the fans in question are frustrated with MLB’s lack of action.

With the help of Andy Zlotnick, an advocate for change who suffered a serious eye injury at Yankee Stadium in 2014, I spoke to three people who make compelling cases for action from MLB after they or family members suffered injuries at the ballpark.

In each case, families have been deeply affected, and not only don’t go to games since then, but can barely watch them on TV.

“We didn’t watch any of the World Series,’’ said Laura Cusick, whose husband, as mentioned earlier, lost the sight in his left eye from that foul ball at Busch Stadium. “Even through the TV, the sounds made it difficult to watch. The crack of the bat brought back too many bad memories.”

The Cusicks, who live in the Atlanta area and were visiting friends in St. Louis when injured, are complimentary of the Cardinals’ response, which includes paying whatever portion of the medical bills their insurance didn’t cover.

They are not pursuing legal action but want their story to be heard as a way of pushing MLB to make more netting mandatory.

Andy Zlotnick injured his eye at Yankee Stadium in 2014.

Andy Zlotnick injured his eye at Yankee Stadium in 2014.

(COURTESY OF ANDY ZLOTNIK)

“Nothing is going to bring my husband’s eyesight back,” Laura Cusick said. “We just want baseball to make the ballpark safer for fans. We wrote a letter to the commissioner and got a very lawyer-ly response from the legal team.

“They say a lot of fans don’t want to sit behind netting, but I don’t think fans realize how vulnerable they are, even down the lines, past the dugouts.

“Where we were sitting, right behind the dugout, there was just no time to react. There were two young boys sitting right behind us when my husband got hit. I’d hate to think what might have happened to them. I’m so terrified something is going to happen to a child.”

Eddie David lived that terror. His six-year-old son, James, was hit in the head by a line drive at a Charlotte Knights minor league game last season, resulting in a skull fracture that put the boy in a local hospital for four days — the first three in the pediatric intensive care unit — until James’ vomiting stopped.

“It was scary,’’ Eddie said by phone. “Fortunately, James is doing well now, but it was harrowing for the first month or so afterward, just trying to keep a six-year-old boy out of harm’s way for fear he’d bump his head somewhere.”

With his wife and two sons, Eddie was sitting in the first row of seats on the field, just beyond the third-base dugout. James had been asking to go to a game, and Eddie says he got the best tickets available, never thinking about the ramifications.

“I just wanted to give the boys the most interactive experience possible,’’ he said. “It never crossed my mind that I’d be putting them in danger or I never would have done it.”

Eddie said the line drive was hit so hard that his wife, sitting closest to James, didn’t have time to prevent the injury, reaching in vain to cover his head.

He was complimentary of the Knights’ response, and says he has not pursued legal action either. Instead, he says the incident has convinced him to tell his story to help bring about more protective netting.

“I think MLB is terrified of the reaction of season ticket-holders who don’t want the netting,’’ David said. “But until it happens to them, they don’t think about what could happen.

“My son doesn’t want to go back to another baseball game but I would love to take him back someday. I’m a Yankee fan and my dream is take him to a game there someday where there is new netting protecting fans, and I can tell him that people read his story and it helped bring about change.”

Then there is Dwayne Sowa, a 46-year-old Mets fan living in the Philadelphia area who suffered a head injury at a Phillies game in 2014 that required extensive surgery and he says still affects him severely.

Dwayne Sowa after surgery.

Dwayne Sowa after surgery.

(PHOTO PROVIDED BY SOWA FAMILY)

“It changed my life,’’ Sowa said by phone. “There were times when my head was hurting so bad that I was raging over every little thing. I’m on meds that mellow me out, but I still can’t be in a crowded room or I get nauseous from all the voices. It has been hard to deal with.”

Sowa said the injury occurred because he was in the process of paying a vendor from his seat, looking away from the field when he heard a crack of the bat and turned just in time to be stuck in the forehead by Jimmy Rollins’ line drive.

Sowa said he did pursue legal action but, like others who have tried in the past, was thwarted by the so-called baseball rule, based on the warning on the back of every ticket that essentially says the team isn’t responsible for fans’ safety from balls or bats.

“I had some big-time attorneys,’’ Sowa said. “They were the guys that sued Enron, and had some other big cases. I know the baseball rule has always stood up when people tried to sue, but I thought I was going to be the guinea pig, because I lost wages and the injury had such a big effect.

“But the lawyers got to the point where they told me we weren’t going to win. I was like, ‘wow, baseball even scared off these guys.’”

Though Sowa says the Phillies did invite him to a game later that season and had him meet Jimmy Rollins, he said they wouldn’t allow him to show Rollins photos of his injury, and the entire episode has left him with a bad taste about the team and MLB.

“When Freddy Galvis called them out last year, I loved it,’’ Sowa said. “He said it perfectly: he felt guilty about hitting someone and couldn’t believe that baseball isn’t doing more to protect the fans.

“So why don’t the owners feel guilty? They’re trying to protect their pocket. Something needs to change. Stop putting the blame on fans for not paying attention. That’s how they made me feel. But I was paying attention. I was just in a position where I had to look the other way for a few seconds, and that’s all it took.”

Sowa said he was 18 rows from the field, behind the third-base dugout, an area he believes would have been protected by the netting the Phillies are installing for the 2017 season.

He thinks teams should go even farther to protect fans, but said of the Phillies’ announcement, “I think it’s a good start.”

It’s only a start, however, if more teams follow or MLB takes a strong stance on the issue. You just hope it doesn’t take something horrible to make it happen.

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