Netting the Foul Ball Problem

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Photo Courtesy of the Associated Press (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Has the game of baseball changed over the past 100+ years?  Sure, there have been minor changes to the designated hitter, the length of seasons, postseason structure, height of the pitcher’s mound, and smaller things here and there.  However, the game of baseball today is pretty much the same game today as it was well over hundred years ago.  The difference: the ballparks have gotten prettier. 

Well, if the game of baseball has not changed, why does it seem that are more reported injuries being witnessed and reported at stadiums?  Sadly, and most unfortunately, we are hearing about thousands of injuries (and even deaths) at ballparks across the country from foul balls entering the stands off the bats of Louisville Sluggers in the batter’s box.  In response, some Major League Baseball teams have lengthened the protective netting that normally runs the space between each dugout behind home plate.  The Los Angeles Dodgers are the most recent team to announce the extension of the their protective netting. 

Now, the above is a reactionary policy to the deeply saddening loss of life and reported injuries.  Would Major League Baseball and franchises be better off with a more proactive policy?  For those who have sat behind a net (usually home plate seating), the visual difference is arguably unrecognizable.  The netting is so thin that it is hard to tell unless a spectators eyes are focused on the subject matter. 

Nevertheless, there is one major issue that has gone unnoticed, and that is whether extended protective netting goes far enough.  In a sport like baseball, unlike basketball, football, or soccer, where a ball entering the stands is either far enough away to lose speed at impact or protective netting catches the ball (e.g., behind the football kicking uprights), baseballs entering the stands are at 90+ miles per hour speeds at close range.  The speed and impact cause injuries. 

How can this problem be fixed?  How can professional sports like Major League Baseball be more proactive?  It was reported recently that fans spend more time on their phones and doing things not related to the game than ever before.  Games attendees, including this author, have spent innings at a time checking social media after taking a picture or video of the game, which took another inning just to take the best picture or video.  While sitting in any seat in the ballpark, this is dangerous, not to mention rude when with company and to those on the field who have dedicated their life to perfecting their craft. 

While attending a sporting event, attendees need to do their part.  This is not the case for every situation of course.  Sometimes the reaction times are just not fast enough to get out of the way and protect oneself.  This is where protective netting comes into play.  However, if everyone in the ballpark was more alert of their surroundings we might be all the better.

Baseball, however, keeps statistics on everything.  Recently, an analysis was done on where the most foul balls were hit showing “danger” zones.  What if in those areas a no-cell rule was implemented?  Those seats are so close to the action it begs the question of why anyone would be doing something other than watching the game, but in case our attention spans wonder, which they do, there should be warnings that the seats are considered serious foul ball territory (when purchasing and sitting down), and a rule against long lengths of cell phone use enforced by ushers and police officers in the area.  A rhetorical question: what is the difference between exit seats on an airplane and those seats that require more effort or attention to the rules of the game?  People need to know what they are getting into and how to protect themselves, and others.    

All of the above being said, there is now further data that shows three very important recent changes to the game of baseball: (1) pitchers are throwing harder, which induces harder contact (and higher velocity foul balls), (2) foul ground territory has shrunk to place fans closer to the action, and (3) foul balls have increased by 11.98% since the 1998 season, which now means that that since the 2017 season there are more foul balls than balls hit into the field of play.  One ballplayer argued that with the quality of pitching improving, batters fight off more pitches until they see one they can manage to hit.     

America could also take some guidance from overseas in Japan where unprotected seating is a luxury and when foul balls and home runs are hit, a loud horn signifies that act.  The issue here is a management and legal one.  Interestingly, a baseball game today is more about in-game off-the-field entertainment as it is on-the-field play (50/50 raffles, hat shuffles, kiss cams, sausage races, etc.).  Now, those activities are between innings and during half’s, periods, quarters, and timeouts, but the point here is that where danger is abound, our attention spans need to be around.  Professional sports franchises need to be proactive, not reactive to the situation.  Traditional baseball stadiums are beautiful, but when the game changes, its facilities must change with it.  Reaction, however, will only lead to more injuries, and litigation. 

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