Net Gain-MLB Needs To Do More To Protect Fan Safety

Like any baseball fan, I love to sit as close to the game as possible (although sometimes I do enjoy a very, very high perch at Oriole Park at Camden Yards – way, way up at a near dizzying height where I can see the outfield shifts and I am close to the waffle fry vendor. “Would you like crab dip on that?” Mais,oui.).

Also like most baseball fans, I get squinty eyed and suspicious every time I hear the words “baseball has to change.” Ohhhhhh, no. Now, wait a minute, here.

After an increasing number of injuries to fans from errant fly balls and bats, Major League Baseball recently conducted an internal review to consider ways to improve fan safety in ballparks.

Recall this one from August:

Or this one from July (to name only a few):

Scary, indeed. So scary that several players, including the Tigers’ Justin Verlander have called for MLB to make adjustments to improve the safety of fans. The internal review considered the possibilities of implementing additional netting around the field to protect fans from flying balls and/or bats. After the review, MLB made recommendations to each of its thirty ball clubs.

The official release of the recommendations stated:

Clubs are encouraged to implement or maintain netting (or another effective protective screen or barrier of their choosing) that shields from line-drive foul balls all field-level seats that are located between the near ends of both dugouts (i.e., the ends of the dugouts located closest to home plate, inclusive of any adjacent camera wells) and within 70 feet of home plate. The Commissioner’s Office has retained a consultant specializing in stadium architecture and protective netting to assist interested Clubs in implementing this recommendation.

Hmmm. Not exactly commanding language. Pretty non-committal. Teams are “encouraged”, but not required to implement or maintain netting or some other kind of non-specified protective screens or barriers of their choosing.

The release continued with:

“Major League Baseball prides itself on providing fans in our ballparks with unparalleled proximity and access to our players and the game taking place on the field,” commissioner Rob Manfred said. “At the same time, it is important that fans have the option to sit behind protective netting or in other areas of the ballpark where foul balls and bats are less likely to enter. This recommendation attempts to balance the need for an adequate number of seating options with our desire to preserve the interactive pre-game and in-game fan experience that often centers around the dugouts, where fans can catch foul balls, see their favorite players up close and, if they are lucky, catch a tossed ball or other souvenir.

“I am confident that this recommendation will result not only in additional netting at Major League ballparks but also draw additional attention to the need for fans who make the choice not to sit behind netting to be prepared for the possibility of foul balls and bats entering the stands.”

So, MLB “hopes” that teams choose to enhance their netting but places a greater emphasis on encouraging those who choose not to sit behind protective netting to just “be prepared” for the possibility of taking a ball or bat to the skull. Of course they stated that more delicately than I did. They suggest that fans sitting without netting need to be prepared for the possibility of balls or bats “entering the stands.” Why, “entering the stands” sounds positively polite. We all know that that errant fly balls and bats pop, fly and crush into the stands in a split second violently and indiscriminately.

Baseball fans know that feeling of a momentary panicked bewilderment when a ball pops up and we look up, then behind us, into the glaring sun or the evening stadium lights trying desperately to locate that wildly spinning white sphere. We know the crack of a broken bat and that horror when it turns from a smooth, shiny implement of our baseball dreams into a ragged, shredded, deadly spear hurling through the air with an unknown destination. We know that pitchers are throwing with stronger velocity than ever before. We know that hitters are more powerful than ever before. We know that as much as we pretend, we really cannot rely on our own reflexes to get us out of the way or on our Little Leaguers’ glove to save us from potential harm.

MLB needs to do more than just advise fans to “be prepared.”Without being overly dramatic, MLB must better educate fans on the potential risks in watching a live game because many fans simply don’t seem to know. Especially those that spend the game right behind home plate, looking down at their phones like sitting ducks in a shooting range. Or those holding newborns just one row up from the field (nice grab,though..fortunately…).

Or those that are preening around to be seen on camera like our friend Marlins Man. Tiny signs that read “Watch out for flying bats and balls” is not enough.

Of course, there are risks associated with just being alive. There are risks to our safety just driving to the ballpark. There are risks to our health in the trans fats in the popcorn and the sodium in the hot dogs and in that extra beer. In baseball, as in life, we ultimately have no control over what happens and things can pop up and threaten us at any moment. All we can ever do is seek to mitigate those risks, knowing that we did all that we could to protect our safety and the safety of those that we care about. MLB should do the same by conducting a much more in-depth analysis of what areas of the sport’s ballparks present the greatest risks to fan safety and then requiring, not merely “suggesting” that teams improve netting in those areas. MLB  must also better educate fans on the true risks they face in the seats that they select. As the speed of the game has changed, in this case, MLB must also change.