Why We Don’t Need More Nets

Before I get started, I want to make this perfectly clear: I understand that I’m among the relatively small minority of baseball fans that remains opposed to extended netting. I completely understand the arguments in favor of extending the netting at least to the edge of the dugout. Protecting fans from injury is an admirable goal, and I think it’s perfectly fair to say that reasonable steps should be taken to ensure the safety of fans that paid good money to come watch their team play baseball.

With all that said, you can feel free to count me among the wrong opinions that think additional stadium netting was unnecessary. In fact, I may actually be the only writer here at SDI who holds this particular opinion. Trust me, it’s been a heated topic of conversation over the past few weeks.

In the live ball era (since 1920), there has been a single fan death at a Major League stadium resulting from being struck by a batted ball. Count them: One. In the dead ball era, roughly 1860-1919, documentation was generally hazy and somewhat unreliable, but there are no reported foul ball fan deaths in that 59 years period.

The single documented incident involving a ball hit into the stands at a game that resulted in a fan death took place on May 16, 1970 at Dodgers Stadium. Manny Mota was facing Gaylord Perry when he hit a foul ball into the seats near first base that struck a fan, resulting in his death four days later. In 155 years of Major League professional baseball, spanning more than 210,000 games and easily more than thirty million pitches, there has been exactly one documented death related to a ball hit into the stands striking a fan.

In the past several years a few fans have fallen to their death in Major League stadiums, including Shannon Stone who was reaching for a ball tossed to him by Josh Hamilton as he leaned over the left field railing at Globe Life Park. Stone tragically fell into the area between the wall and the stands, landing near the visiting bullpen. While alcohol was not involved in Stone’s death, it has been a factor in most falling deaths at baseball stadiums and suicide has been a cause for some as well. In the time since the terrible Stone accident, the Rangers and most other teams have taken steps to prevent such falls including higher railing, although anytime you mix alcohol, crowds of 30,000 people and heights of 40+ feet, you’re going to still have accidents.

Until those accidents were widely publicized, were there fewer spectator accidents around baseball? No, we just weren’t as aware. In this age of Twitter, Facebook and 24-hour news, every baseball fan can be virtually immediately informed of everything going on across the country. Is it fair to say that if we didn’t have social media and the modern 24-hour news cycle, it’s unlikely we would ever know about most of those occurrences outside of our own home market. The modern sports fan is more aware of his or her sport than ever before, and while that’s a good thing for fans and the sport as a whole, it’s also directly proportional to the quantity of outrage directed at teams and leagues when a tragic injury or loss of life does befall some poor fan.

But I digress; back to the new stadium netting. Last June, I took my 12-year-old to a Rangers game at The Globe and we sat in section 33 just behind the Rangers dugout, on row 13. In the 4th inning of that Saturday afternoon game against the Twins, Colby Lewis offered Eduardo Nunez a breaking ball that he sprayed right toward our seats. Rusty was paying attention, and he was wearing his Mizuno infielder’s glove that afternoon, so he quickly stood to make a play on the line drive foul. The ball was a little high and tailing away, so he actually leaned over the seat and caught the ball as he fell onto the concrete flooring of the row behind us, somehow spilling my entire, newly purchased Blue Moon in the process. If the stadium had the same netting that’s recently been installed, he would have surely been robbed of that entire experience and I would have left the game without a beer stained pair of jeans.

In July of 2007, Colorado Rockies minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh was coaching first base for the Tulsa Drillers who were visiting the Arkansas Travelers when he was struck in the head by a line drive. Coolbaugh died at the Little Rock hospital where he was taken immediately after the incident. He was standing in the first base coaches box, paying close attention to preventing his baserunner from being picked off when Tino Sanchez drove a rope straight toward his defenseless head.

Should Mike Coolbaugh have been able to protect himself? He’s a former player, a former infielder no less, and his reaction should have been to protect himself from being hit by the ball, right? Sadly no, because he was doing his job – focusing on the pitcher and the runner at first base. Would the outcome be any different for a player leaning on the dugout railing having a conversation with his teammates during an at bat? We’ve all seen sharp fouls lined toward a dugout, and even some players hit by balls. Fortunately there haven’t been any severe dugout player injuries, but a player standing at the railing who’s not paying attention to the batter has the same reaction time to a line drive foul ball as Mike Coolbaugh: none, until he’s hit.

Even the finest Major League infielders like Adrian Beltre can’t react to protect themselves from a Mitch Moreland drive directly at his temple when he’s looking at Prince Fielder and wondering why Dutch still hasn’t gotten a hair cut.

That’s not to mention the terrible incident when Brandon McCarthy was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar in 2012. That injury led to baseball’s eventual implementation of the policy in 2014 that allows pitchers to wear a padded, protective cap on the mound, an option very few pitchers have exercised since they became available. Depending on a pitcher’s specific motion, many simply can’t react to a line drive while their body is contorted, with their head at waist level or lower.

Just this past December, LeBron James leapt into courtside seats in Cleveland trying to secure a loose ball, landing on a pregnant female spectator that required concussion treatment for her injuries.  Are NBA fans and pundits demanding netting, railing or outright removal of courtside seats to prevent injuries like the ones Ellie Day sustained only 2 months ago? If first responders hadn’t responded as promptly as they did, Mrs. Day and her baby could have both lost their lives because a 250 pound athlete running at full speed crashed into her as she sat minding her own business. Thankfully, Mrs. Day recovered from her concussion and sustained no other long term injuries.

Is the safety of thousands worth one 12-year-old’s souvenir foul ball? Of course not, that’s not my argument. I merely contend that if you attend a baseball game, if you’re going to pay good money to come watch a sport where you know for a fact that hard objects are going to fly into the stands, you’re doing so accepting the inherent risk associated with attending that game. I freely admit that I’m in a distinct minority, but I consider myself a realist looking at 155 years of baseball history. Untold millions of fans have attended baseball games over the years, and yet they keep coming back knowing full well that balls will be flying – and most certainly landing somewhere.

Now, you may ask, what’s my solution? I submit that it’s actually much easier than changing the fan experience for every spectator in premium seats. When you purchase a ticket, the back of the ticket explains in not exactly uncertain terms that by entering the stadium and presenting the ticket for admission to the stadium you are assuming the following waiver:

“…all risk and danger incidental to the Game, and all other activities, promotions or events at Globe Life Park in Arlington (“Ballpark”) before, during or after the Game (“Game Events”), including, but not limited to, the danger of being injured by equipment, objects or persons entering spectator areas…”

Does this type of waiver go far enough? I submit that this passive waiver should at the minimum be accompanied by an active waiver, requiring fans to actively acknowledge these inherent risks. If you walk into Six Flags Over Texas, every roller coaster has a sign that reads something similar to “Guests with the following conditions are prohibited from riding”, followed by a list that includes ailments such as recent surgery, heart trouble, high blood pressure, neck trouble, back trouble, pregnancy, and other health issues.

Similar signage should be posted in stadium seating areas that are more likely to require a quick reaction than others. If you’re elderly or disabled, Six Flags makes it abundantly clear that it’s unwise for you to ride Texas Giant and the Titan. Major League Baseball teams should similarly make it abundantly clear to ticketholders with signage that if they’re physically unable to protect themselves from a ball that might fly at their head they shouldn’t sit in certain areas of the stadium, and if they do so they make that choice at their own risk. I also suggest that the league should take steps toward making protective caps for pitchers and anyone in the dugout mandatory.

However, instead of taking these simple steps, the modern variety of outrage has led teams and the league to change the fan experience. Don’t be mistaken, the netting that was recently installed at Globe Life Park and other Major League stadiums this offseason absolutely will keep balls from hitting some fans and prevent some injuries. I fear that this is just another step in softening the experience of the game, and the precedent that’s set will be used to justify further, even more extreme measures to totally disassemble baseball as we know it.

Robert Aycock on Twitter
Robert Aycock
Robert's first Texas Rangers game was in June of 1991. That was a 15 inning game where Nolan Ryan pitched the first 9 innings, Gary Pettis went 0-6, and Robert was hooked for life. Robert has a pretty exciting job in the real world. He's a corporate tax attorney at an oil company. Don't ask about it unless you want to get really bored.

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