Cubs hitter Albert Almora Jr. was in anguish last Wednesday night in Houston after his line-drive foul ball struck a young girl. He knew immediately after making contact that he’d sent a dangerous projectile into the stands. “I want to put a net around the whole stadium,” he said.
That’s an idea Major League baseball should consider. Foul balls are part of the game, and part of the fun. But only when a hitter’s mistimed swing delivers a lazy pop fly in your direction and — I got it, I got it — you make a heroic barehanded grab.
Line drives are something else. Major league foul balls can come off the bat at speeds that exceed 100 mph. Bats go flying, too.
A Bloomberg News report in 2014 found that 1,750 major league fans are hurt by foul balls each season. In 2017 a toddler sitting with her grandparents at Yankee Stadium was struck in the face by a 105 mph foul that broke her nose and orbital bones and caused bleeding in her brain. Last year, a 79-year-old woman at Dodger Stadium was hit in the head and died several days later.
Baseball stadiums rely on protective netting to keep fans safe, but only seats behind home plate or just up the line are included. In response to serious incidents, MLB last year extended the coverage area to the far ends of dugouts at minimum. That isn’t good enough. The girl at the Houston Astros game was sitting in the area just beyond the visitors dugout. The woman in California was hit by a ball that cleared the top of the netting.
Attending a game has become more dangerous because pitchers throw harder and hitters are stronger. Stadiums, meanwhile, are seating fans closer to the action. Most fans don’t have the reaction time of a pro athlete. And, it should be noticed, fans may not even be paying attention to the game. They’re eating hot dogs, filling out their score cards or looking at their phones.
Team owners face competing pressures: Of course they have an obligation and a desire to keep attendees safe. But fans who pay a lot of money for prime seats don’t want an obstructed view, or lost opportunities to catch a ball. The most passionate advocates for more extensive netting may be the players, who understand the damage a baseball can do. Almora was devastated by the scene of the girl being rushed up the aisles.
The solution to this problem, as with many things pertaining to baseball, involves physics and probabilities. It’s clear too many screaming liners are hurting people. Whether protective netting needs to be extended another 20 feet, or all the way to the foul poles, to protect more fans, can be calculated. The nets may have be raised a few feet as well.
Baseball’s a great game. It should be safe to attend. MLB and team owners should do more to protect their fans from injury — and protect their players from distress.