A hard line drive off the bat of a major league hitter can rocket into the seats behind the dugout in six-tenths of a second. That means a fan intensely watching the game can see the ball hit the bat, blink an eye, then have the ball just inches from his or her head.
Safety measures intended to protect the fans sitting behind the dugout seem like a no-brainer. That’s what the players think, and Major League Baseball appears to share their concern. This past offseason the Astros, along with a number of other Major League teams, extended their ballpark's netting, which for years has protected the fans sitting from behind home plate to the end of the dugouts. Last week the Mets said that they would extend CitiField's netting even further, to the foul poles, exceeding the MLB request that teams have nets to the dugouts.
This has not necessarily been a popular move among fans. Horror writer (and Red Sox fan) Stephen King whined about his view being blocked by the net. Others have complained about a nanny state philosophy and lawyers who are hell-bent on destroying baseball. Then there’s the old-fashioned complaint that maybe people should pay attention to the game if they’re so worried about being hit by a line drive into the stands.
But why should the onus be on fans to pay attention? Especially since a mere blink of the eye can be enough to lose sight of a batted ball. And what about those fans who are trying to pay attention but have to deal with the guy in the row in front standing up and trying to start the wave? Or what about a fan who keeps score and notes every pitch and looks down to make a mark in the scorebook?
People are seriously injured by foul balls and broken bats during games. This concerns players who have lobbied for the extended nettings for many years, going so far as to include the request in collective bargaining talks. There are some players who are afraid for family members to sit in the family seats at some ballparks because of netting concerns. The situation is worsened by the new ballparks that have the stands even closer to the field than before.
“Our footprint gives our fans great sight lines,” Dave St. Peter, president of the Minnesota Twins, told The New York Times last year when asked about that team’s extended netting. “But we were fully aware of the proximity of those seats. When the commissioner decided to take a deeper look at fan safety, it was very much welcomed by Jim Pohlad, our owner, and myself.”
Now add in smart phones and social media. Fans are often looking at phones, reading Twitter or checking texts. Teams encourage fans to interact on social media during games with online polls and various giveaways. So it’s almost part of the actual game experience for fans to watch the game and their phones. But with the speed that a batted ball can travel, that’s also a recipe for danger.
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Some of those upset about the increased netting presence feel that the game is being diminished because they can’t reach out and get autographs before games (the Astros raise the net during batting practice so that fans can do just this. The nets are also shorter toward the end of the dugout, allowing fans to catch pop fouls). Some fans also believe that this devalues otherwise prime seats, harming teams and costing them money because of the so-called blocked view.
The problem with this argument, of course, is that for many, many, many years, the most expensive and desirable seats in baseball have been behind home plate. Those seats are protected by the netting. Fans who sit behind home plate do not complain about obstructed views or about not being close to the action.
“Going to the ballpark and watching a game of baseball is a different experience now than it was even ten years ago, with the growing popularity of social media and real-time updates,” Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan said back in February. “We want our fans to be able to enjoy a ballgame however they like, whether that's from behind a more protective layer of netting or right in the middle of the action.”
The Astros did the right thing this offseason when the team extended the netting. The Mets and the Twins have done well by their fans as well. The players know all about the damage that can be done by a hard-hit ball to the head. And think of it this way: If the game-watching experience of the people paying big bucks to sit behind home plate isn’t ruined by the netting, then the fan sitting behind the dugout won’t have a ruined experience either.