A line drive comes off a typical professional baseball player’s bat somewhere around 110 mph. The kinds of line drives that go sideways, blazing past the foul line and into the great beyond -- a beyond that is, 162 days a year, mostly full of people and their faces -- tend to move a little slower: a mere 80-something mph by the time they’re 60 feet out. It takes, generously, a second and change for one of those balls to reach the seats directly behind the dugout. You and your face don’t stand much of a chance.
When fans walk into their ballpark of choice on Opening Day, nearly all will find that the protective nets behind home plate have grown. Nineteen clubs, from the Yankees to the Phillies to the Giants, extended their netting this offseason to comply with a December recommendation from Major League Baseball that the mesh extend 70 feet from home plate to the inner edges of the dugouts, in most cases 10 feet or more beyond where the netting has historically ended. Clubs were quick to comply with the new recommendation: even stalwarts like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field added additional netting this spring.
The remaining 11 teams have left their backstop netting as is: it already reached the dugouts. That you probably didn’t know that Busch Stadium and Citi Field had more netting than most other parks should be an indication of how disruptive the new netting will be elsewhere -- which is to say, not very.
Three clubs -- the Nationals, Royals and Twins -- went further than the MLB recommendation, adding netting all the way to the outer edges of the dugouts. Yet even this is not far enough to guarantee the safety of fans in the lower level: a man who suffered serious face and eye injuries in 2011 when he was struck by a ball at Yankee Stadium and who has since become an advocate for fan safety was seated 50 feet beyond the end of the dugout when he was hit.
Boston Red Sox
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Toronto Blue Jays
In 2014 alone, 1,750 fans were injured by foul or errant balls in the stands at major league games, according to analysis by Bloomberg News. The injuries range from the relatively benign -- cuts and bruises -- to the much more serious: shattered bones, skull fractures and nerve and brain damage. Strikes to fans occur more often than players are hit by pitches at the plate.
Advocates for extending the nets at ballparks have long pointed to the NHL, which adopted nets behind the glass only after the 2002 death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, who was fatally struck by a deflected puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. Longer nets are standard in baseball elsewhere -- for example in Japan, where they extend from foul pole to foul pole at professional games.
Support for extended netting came from everyone from Marlins Man -- whose face you’ve probably seldom not seen through a net -- to the players union, which tried for years to negotiate additional netting. The league shot them down.
Courts, after all, have long favored teams over injured fans. The fine print on the back of your ticket and a sign on the wall warning that foul balls hurt have more often than not been deemed sufficient warning that your occipital bone might be blown to smithereens if the pitch and the swing and your miserable luck are just right. MLB’s recommendation that some small step in the direction of fan safety be taken is, among other things, wan recognition that the legal onus might be beginning to shift.
As recently as 2014, the league denied that more netting might be necessary. "[T]here is no epidemic of foul ball damage yet that would warrant some sort of edict or action by the commissioner’s office," an MLB executive told Bloomberg in September of that year -- and yet here we are, 15 months later.
"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 wrote in a statement announcing the new netting recommendations, the conclusion of an MLB study on fan safety, in December. "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 is the dilemma baseball has wrestled with: How do you reconcile the desire to protect fans with something so many fans insist they don’t want? The arguments against expanded netting run from the cosmetic -- the unsightliness and infringement on the view of some of the best seats in the house -- to the more traditional, the introduction of a barrier between fans and players, mascots and handlers with spare baseballs. To truly protect fans at baseball games is to risk angering the ones most willing to pay up for seats.
The league was reluctant to make even its minimal 70-foot netting recommendation. It's just that, after all: a recommendation and not a requirement.
The incidence and severity of fan injuries have grown in recent years for a variety of reasons. Clubs have installed seats closer and closer to home plate and filled games with action off the field -- on the big screen and in most everywhere a mascot can squeeze in a jumping jack. Maple bats, which shatter into long, jagged pieces more readily than ash, are now in use across the majors.
And most fans now carry a smartphone in their back pockets, one that teams are only too happy to encourage them to fix their eyes on during games: to take pictures and post to social media, to cue up announcers and stats on the MLB app, to use the wifi that many stadiums boast about providing. This in turn has become a lightning rod for baseball's traditionalists: if you don’t want to lose a battle to a line drive, these voices say, stop looking at your iPhone and pay attention to the game. Stories like a boy’s brush with disaster at a Braves spring training game -- saved at the last moment from a flying bat by his father’s outstretched arm -- go viral in large part because the urge to finger-wag is so strong. In reality, the odds that Candy Crush will make or break your ability to respond to a three-inch sphere hurtling toward your face are slim.
As they prepare to swing open their gates next week, many teams are bracing for backlash. Clubs have quietly notified season ticket holders whose views are affected; it would be reasonable to expect disgruntled posts to social media about obstructed views and the creep of the nanny state. Is this the way the game is played? some fans will ask.
It is, now. Safer -- a little bit. And that should be the goal. As with every other change in baseball, fans will grumble at first, but if it improves the experience, even subtly, they'll be on board in the end.