The eternal struggle between sightlines and safety, Part 1: Nets

Part of the view from Section 119 is "obstructed" by the backstop net

Part of the view from Section 119 is obstructed by the backstop net

During today’s A’s broadcast, the between-pitch conversation turned to netting and foul balls. New part-time color commentator Eric Chavez provided an anecdote from during his career. He was hitting batting practice at Boston’s Fenway Park, when a ball he hit went into the stands, hitting a child. Chavy found out that the child had subsequently needed five eye surgeries.

Boston became a focal point of safety when parts of Brett Lawrie’s broken bat ended up in the third base stands, hitting a fan in the head. Tonya Carpenter suffered life threatening injuries, but was eventually released from the hospital. Another fan who was hit by a ball while in the usually glass-protected EMC Club decided to sue the Red Sox last week. The glass had been removed for renovations.

Baseball is unique among all major professional sports in that it is the only sport in which the object of play (ball) routinely travels into the seating area. Most are balls hit into foul territory, with some going out in fair territory as home runs or ground rule doubles, or sometimes the occasional errant throw. For many fans, the souvenir ball is a treasure, a real achievement. For others, the foul ball is a source of potential danger. Bats present an even more perilous, albeit less frequent, hazard.

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These accidents and their often horrific severity have caused MLB to consider changes to ballparks to increase safety, counter to the so-called “Baseball Rule.” The Baseball Rule stipulates that stadium operators can’t be held responsible for injuries caused by stray balls or bats. Over time lawsuits have whittled away at the rule’s strength, to the point that teams have to be much more cognizant of the risk than ever before. Yet little has changed to protect fans. Right now backstop nets generally cover about sixty feet behind home plate and little else. At the Coliseum, the net is full height at the back of the notch, with additional netting angling down towards the front of the notch. The dugouts and field boxes are completely exposed. Only seats at dugout level (sunken below the field) and dugouts at new ballparks tend to be protected. Everything else is typically exposed.

The threat to baseball became more pointed when Gail Payne, an A’s season ticket holder, filed a class action lawsuit against MLB over the threat to fan safety. Never mind that a winged fruit bat has more chance of reaching Payne’s seats than one of Lawrie’s maple bats, there are still plenty of safety issues that MLB has neglected for far too long. A ball coming off the bat can reach the first row behind the dugout in every ML ballpark in one second. 1,750 fans are hit every year, the vast majority in foul territory. The lawsuit asks for new protective netting to be installed from foul pole to foul pole, covering all of the front row seats in foul territory.

chase4_section_s

A foul line drive could reach these seats in less than two seconds

MLB is certain to fight that as much as it can, reasserting its Rule to some extent. To do so would severely impact views for the high-paying fans next to the field. At the same time, they have to be ready for a compromise solution. One that has been discussed recently is an extension of netting to the far edge of each dugout. That should cut down on a number of injuries, though there would still be concerns about fans farther down the lines.

Considering that Lawrie’s bat brought all of this to a head, it’s worth mentioning maple’s role in all of this. Maple bats have long been known for their greater power thanks to the wood being harder than ash. The downside of the maple bat is its tendency to shatter, creating wood shards that fly around like shrapnel, hitting fans and players alike. If it came down to banning maple bats or extending nets, MLB would most likely choose the latter, since the loss of maple bats could have a negative effect on offense.

The increasing role of technology is also a concern, particularly the use of smartphones and tablets during the game. As I sat in the seat pictured above for the A’s-Dbacks game last weekend, I constantly reminded myself to pay more attention to the game. That was a complete failure as I routinely looked down at my Twitter app, putting the phone away only when I was eating (another type of distraction). Going to the other end of the spectrum, it wouldn’t hurt to have a glove on in case something happens. Then again, if the A’s defense is having trouble fielding balls, how much can we expect of fans?

College and amateur facilities have taken the safety net a bit further than the pros have gone, covering some of their small ballparks in nets. Tony Gwynn Stadium at San Diego State University has nets that extend several feet above the railing along the front row.

sdsu_gwynn

Is this a bad view because of the net?

Other parks have a small extended railing, maybe a foot high, above the dugout. The fact is that there’s no proper standard. Factors other than safety can also come into play. The Yankees had difficulty opening the new Yankee Stadium when they had to balance the safety concern with the visual effect of the backstop net on the home plate camera during Yankees broadcasts on the YES Network.

MLB has plenty of data on injuries to institute new standards at current and future ballparks. They’ll have a couple chances to effect change at their two offseason owners meetings, where the safety issue should be a hot topic. Several teams are ready to extend the nets, provided that MLB enacts new standards. The cost should be minimal, in the low five-figures per ballpark. If MLB truly cares, they’ll act quickly by extending the nets instead of creating a task force to study potential changes. Some foul balls will go away, along with the combination of danger and excitement that being exposed entails. It’s worth the sacrifice to reduce the number of injuries.

P.S. – Part 2 will cover railings and their associated risk.

17 thoughts on “The eternal struggle between sightlines and safety, Part 1: Nets

  1. I’m all for extended nets. I don’t want to see anyone injured by foul balls or shattered bats. Still, like people walking across a city street, this issue is symptomatic of the increased unwillingness by the general public to NOT pay attention to their surroundings. Far too many times I’ve witnessed people on their damn phones with screaming baseballs flying by, narrowly missing their skulls. The scene is very Darwinian. I know, its not against the law to be stupid, but now we have lawsuits(class action)to protect us from ourselves. Ugh! Forget the extended nets…it would be much cheaper to have the teams issue every fan an inflatable bubble helmet at the turnstiles. If we’re gonna be stupid, we mine as well look stupid.

    • re: fans not paying attention. That’s correct – too many “fans” not paying attention to the game. Maybe pro sports leagues should cut out the Wi Fi access, etc. There is a risk in attending baseball games – everyone should know that. (When ATT Park opened, Barry Bonds questioned the safety of having the fans so close to the field. So where do we get the lawsuit? From an A’s fan at the Coliseum, which has the most foul territory in MLB.) The last A’s game I was at, a foul ball went into the stands and exploded a plastic beer cup. When the NHL decreed that nets would be erected behind the goals, I switched my corner Sharks seats out to center ice. I didn’t want to watch the games through a net. That happened after a girl was killed by a flying puck in Columbus so I understand why they did it.

    • @dml68: Definitely, fans suing MLB to protect themselves from their own stupidity? – what a goofy idea. If fans believe being exposed to foul balls or flying bats is too dangerous, they have two choices: A: sit at an upper deck or mezzanine section, or B: don’t go to the game.

      • All reasons why I almost always get Plaza Infield seats at the Coli. I’d rather not watch the game through a net, but I’d even more rather not lose some teeth or some brain cells.

        Saying “fans just need to pay closer attention to the game” is not reality. Nobody, not even the biggest fan, is going to maintain laser focused concentration on every at bat for 3 hours. Plus, I don’t need the stress; I go to games to relax and enjoy myself. At some point I might want to look around at the crowd.

  2. If it was my decision, I’d start by extending a low net to the end of all dugouts that at least protects the first few rows. That’s basically Ground Zero for the things that are happening. This net would, most likely, cover the first half-dozen rows or so, but beyond that the views would not be compromised.

    At this point I see no need to go the Japan route and extend the nets all the way to the foul poles. In the Tokyo Dome, they have a net running all the way down the sides to the foul poles, and based on what I’ve seen they look like they’re close to 15 feet in height. That is unnecessary for MLB.

    Yes, fans should be paying more attention to the game instead of tweeting about everything that happens while they sit two rows behind the dugout, heads down while they tap on their phones. At the same time, even when you are paying attention, a screaming liner is nearly impossible to avoid.

    I’ve taken photos from up close for years, and while I’ve never been hit there have been a few close calls. One of the things I try to do, at least if I’m taking a picture of a pitcher, is make sure at least one eye is on the batter by the time the ball’s getting there. That at least gives me a chance to react to something.

  3. By the way, the reason a low net is the best way to start is because the most dangerous situations are those frozen ropes that go straight on a line at someone. Even if it’s still technically a line drive, something with a bit more of an arc to it provides more time to react. Bats that are lost on the swing or broken and fly far enough to reach the seats are a much smaller problem.

  4. I am completely against extending the nets. This is a total peeve for me. In the NHL, Netmann said after the first game everyone will not even notice the net. Not True. All these years later I still can not stand seeing a hockey game behind a net. This has translated to having to spend more money for seats that are next to the center ice sections. Every game I go to I have to calculate (hockey and baseball) where I can sit without seeing the net. In baseball this means a net not obstructing the batter, catcher and umpire. If they ever extended past the dugout It would be a very big deal and probably force me out to the outfield exclusively. That A’s fan that is suing MLB is a nut case, especially since she sits in the Club level. How dare she files “on behalf of all fans” This game has been around for over 140 years and this is now where we are at. Another example why these will never be the” good old days”.

    • Same here. If I wanted to keep my Sharks tickets and not watch the games through a net, I had to pay more. Will MLB have to drop the prices of those premium-priced, front-rows-near-the-field seats because of the newly net-obstructed views? Good luck with that.

    • Well, here’s the thing:

      In MLB, it’d be the seats closest to the infield, the more expensive ones, that get the nets. If you don’t want to have a view blocked at all by netting, let’s assume it’s the lower nets over the dugouts that only protect the first few rows. You would still have many other options to sit somewhere for less that would not obstruct your view. You just wouldn’t be as close.

      The hockey situation is completely different, as the seats at both ends of the rink are not as expensive as the ones near center ice or the blue lines.

    • Totally agreed, Robo. That lady is an embarrassment to all A’s fans.

  5. Because MLB has an anti-trust exemption for being sued by fans, this could be solved by removing the exemption. Teams would then do what’s right for the fan experience. I think extending the net, or some sort of safety glass from dugout to dugout makes more sense. Balls seem to come into the stands in the last 5 years at a faster rate than before.

  6. Would this mean the end of autographs during BP? If the dugouts and bullpens are fenced off, the timeless tradition would die off.

  7. All those fans that buy the most expensive seats behind the plate have been complaining for so long about the net blocking their view that they have decided to take all the nets down. Oh, you mean the nets have been there forever? Those seats are always sold out? No one’s complaining? Extend the nets to the dugouts a couple feet high. No big deal.

  8. My personal view on this is that people should be paying attention to the game they paid to see. I strongly dislike watching the game through the net. That’s why my seats in 123R and 120R are outside the net. I imagine all those people with season tickets directly behind the dugouts and in the front rows just past the dugouts would be equally displeased to find themselves behind nets.

  9. I think the bigger problem with the dugout nets is not the nets themselves but the posts that hold them up. I’ve never had a problem seeing a white ball through a black net, but if the batter was blocked by one of the posts (as it would be if the SDSU picture was taken a couple rows down and a couple seats over)? Not fun. The Coliseum actually has a pretty good setup for the backstop net as it is strung up to the upper deck, rather than supported by posts, like at most other places.

    I’m not really seeing why the past-the-dugout-seat focus is on the front rows and not the whole section. From my memory, the first 20 or so rows at the Coliseum get about an equal amount of balls, and that’s with all the foul territory. Seems like if you’re going to protect any, you’d need to protect them all. Also, having a net at all is going to lead to people thinking they’re protected when they’re actually not, and leading them to be even less careful.

  10. This is a great call to safety for the fans. After all, the fans are the people paying to go see these games. It is in best interest to keep them safe with the nets in place!

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