Should MLB Install Protective Netting From Foul Pole to Foul Pole?

A woman attending a Boston Red Sox game with her son on Friday night is in a hospital with life-threatening injuries. She was hit in the head by the jagged edge of Oakland A’s third baseman Brett Lawrie. His maple bat shattered on contact with a pitch and sailed into the stands, nailing the fan who was enjoying the game. Game action was stopped as the fan was taken out of Fenway Park on a stretcher, screaming in pain.

This incident has, once again, raised a call for increased safety measures to protect fans sitting in the high-priced seats down the base lines. These are the fans who are not protected by the net that goes up behind home plate. Sure there’s that disclaimer printed on the back of tickets stating that fans accept the risk of being hit by a foul ball or bat that flies into the stands. These warnings are also posted in the stands, and ushers remind fans of that throughout the game.

Now though baseball owners tend to think they are off the hook for damages when such events occur, the courts do not always agree. But aside from that disclaimer, it helps to remember that just several years ago, MLB took action to help to cut down on broken bats flying into the stands by issuing regulations for maple bats that have cut down on the number of bats broken per season.

There is a rather simple solution, a solution that will protect fans in the field boxes from foul pole to foul pole. Only, according to a story yesterday from Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, it’s a solution that has been vetoed by multiple times by MLB owners. In the last two rounds of collective bargaining between the players and the owners (2007 and 2012), the players requested that netting, like that found behind home plate, instead extend from foul line to foul line. But the owners said no.

"Some owners are afraid to upset the fans that pay some of the highest ticket prices, when in reality, it's an effort to protect those very fans,” Diamondbacks reliever Brad Ziegler, a member of the negotiating committee for the players' union, told Rosenthal. “(The owners) seem afraid that fans will lose access to the players — autographs, getting baseballs, etc. — and that will cause those ticket holders to be unhappy. Or that they'd have to watch the game through a net. (But) fans behind home plate pay the highest prices, have the same issues and yet those seats are always full.”

It’s easy to say that if fans are paying attention, then they’ll be fine. But it takes just a split second for a person to look down, then totally lose track of the ball or a bat. Or maybe a vendor blocks the view, or somebody else stands up to cheer. Or a parent is trying to corral a child. Thus it just makes sense from a safety standpoint to extend the netting across the stadium.

As for not wanting to upset the people who pay high prices to sit in unprotected seats, that’s just a ridiculous argument to make. The highest-priced seats in baseball are generally those right behind home plate, which of course are seats protected by netting. Those fans still seem to have access to players, and if you’ve ever sat down there, you’ll know that you quickly adjust to the netting. And I’m one of the decreasing minority of fans who keep score during a game, which means that I often look down to note a pitch or a play in my book, and it sometimes takes me a second or two to readjust to the action on the field.

The NHL had an incident in 2003 where a 13-year-old was killed after a puck flew into the stands and hit her in the head. The NHL didn’t wait for CBA negotiations to restart — which is probably a good thing because CBA talks in the NHL are usually disastrous — and it didn’t take time to worry about whether fans paying big dollars for seats would be upset by loss of player access. It ordered safety netting installed in all NHL arenas. And all it takes is for the MLB office to order its owners to do the same thing.

There’s not been a death at an MLB game caused by a bat. There’s been only one death since 1970 caused by a fan getting hit by a foul ball. But people are injured every year because of bats and balls flying into the stands, and the simple fix of putting up netting from foul pole to foul pole shouldn’t be something that’s controversial or subject to the owners saying “no” to during CBA talks. And as the ballpark experience continues to take the focus from the field to things happening in the stands, it’s only fitting that MLB owners stop hiding behind that ticket disclaimer and start actually making an effort to protect all fans, not just those fans behind home plate.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal