After various incidents and increased concern for fans in the expensive seats around the plate, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is getting ready to recommend that teams expand netting past the current backstop area.
The expectation here is that despite the lack of uniformity among backstops (the Coliseum’s notch is perhaps the most unique), nets will extend to the far ends of the dugouts. There’s some inconsistency there as well, since new ballparks sometimes have dugouts of unequal size in favor of home clubs. Unless legislation or legal action forces specific standards beyond the dugouts, it seems as if MLB will provide a minimum standard and give individual teams the discretion to go further if they wish.
At the Coliseum, the net is situated in front of the Diamond Level seats, extending to the start of the dugouts on either side. Designing extensions becomes complicated thanks to the walkways between the Diamond Level seats and the dugouts. Unlike a modern ballpark whose dugouts are directly connected clubhouses, at the Coliseum teams have to use these walkways to go into the stadium. Often these walkways are used as extra standing space for players, or as spots for photographers (see above photo).
Since these walkways have to be functional, they can’t have a net hanging down and obstructing them. I suspect that when the time comes to put in a new net, it will run from the far end of the A’s (third base) dugout atop the roof, then follow the shape of the original notch, going behind the Diamond Level seats, and around to the visitors dugout. The Diamond Level seats will get their own protection, in the form of another net that extends eight or nine feet high, just tall enough that anyone standing in that area will be safe. The Mets went a particularly heinous route by installing plexiglas-fronted boxes on the field for the World Series. I had thought that the plexiglas era was behind us, yet there those boxes stood at Citi Field, like penalty boxes for the rich.
Once you solve the problem of how to redo the backstop, there’s the question of how much protection is needed down the lines. Besides the issue of determining the length of the net, there’s also the height and shape. Given that many of the most dangerous bats and foul balls whiz right over the top of the dugout, it makes sense to have protection there. But does it need to be the same height as the backstop? Can it taper down to the far end of the dugout?
MLB and its clubs probably have some decent statistical data that can create a framework for recommendations on the height and length of nets in every ballpark. I hope the teams take this to heart, as there have been too many avoidable injuries in the last year, let alone decades. Then again, sometimes when you try to protect yourself you just set yourself up for another kind of danger.