I’m a big baseball fan. I played through college and I follow the game very closely. Occasionally, usually through a friend or colleague, I get the opportunity to sit close to the field, not too far above one of the dugouts. What an awesome view. You can really see the pitcher, hitter and catcher interact. The best players in the world are right in front of you and it feels like you can reach out and touch them.
The downside is that this is a very risky place to be. Foul balls (very hard spheres) can shoot at you (and your friends or family) at upwards of 160 kph. Serious injuries can happen. And they do. There has been a significant increase in fans being struck and critically injured by foul balls in recent years.
A two-year-old girl was blasted in the head a couple months ago at a Cubs-Astros game. She suffered a skull fracture, bleeding on the brain and seizures. The batter who hit the ball was horrified by what he witnessed. The Cubs Albert Almora, Jr., stood at home plate in shock and in tears.
That incident isn’t an outlier. Many other fans, including young kids and grandparents, have been struck this season. In two recent games at Tampa, one fan was hit in the head by a ball and the other pounded in the back by a flying bat that slipped out of the batter’s hands. Last year, a 79-year-old woman died from brain injuries after being hit in the skull by a ball.
I’ve long been against putting up protective netting down the foul lines. I thought it hindered the fan experience. But I’ve had a change of heart. After seeing several kids get drilled by screaming line drives this season, along with reading about the increase in the number of foul balls, I’ve changed my tune. It should be safety first at the ballpark.
Both the game and society has changed. Not only do pitchers throw harder and batters swing harder, resulting in balls rocketing into the stands at greater speeds, but most fans today take their eye off the game to check messages and social media posts on their phones, putting themselves at greater risk of being injured. And newer stadiums were constructed with the stands closer to the field than in the past, increasing the risks to fans.
Baseball, more than any other game, is also often a social event for fans. With lots of breaks in the action, fans spend a lot of time chatting with their neighbours. That can prove dangerous. If your head is turned for just a couple seconds and a foul ball comes zipping at you at 160 kph, it doesn’t matter if you’re an athletic 20-something, a two-year-old or an 80-year-old grandparent: avoiding, deflecting, or catching a baseball hit that hard is extremely tough to do.
The number of foul balls going into the stands has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. The website FiveThirtyEight found that almost 14,000 more foul balls were hit last season than in 1998, when MLB expanded to its current 30 teams. That means a lot more opportunities for injuries to fans to occur. And of 580 foul balls hit this season, every line drive with a recorded speed off the bat of 145 kph landed in an area that was unprotected by netting.
It’s time. We need extended protective netting down the lines in baseball stadiums. All I really needed to change my mind on this issue was to see that poor little girl in Houston get struck in the head and carried out of the stadium, covered by blood, while the batter, Amora, Jr., stood watching and weeping. It was a poignant scene.
Ken Reed is sports policy director for League of Fans (leagueoffans.org), a sports reform project. He is the author of three books on sports issues: The Sports Reformers; Ego vs. Soul in Sports; and How We Can Save Sports.