The shame of MLB's morally repugnant anti-netting excuses

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

Every day that goes by with even one major league stadium lacking protective netting past each dugout, if not farther down both lines, baseball teams are inviting a child to get hit in the face by a projectile traveling 100 mph. Think about that. Obscene amounts of money go toward ballpark experience and ambience and amenities, and because courts of law have upheld that the disclaimer on the back of tickets indemnifies teams from balls and bats whirring into the stands, they treat safety as if it’s of no concern. This is more than negligence. It is the witting abdication of moral responsibility. It is in every sense of the word shameful.

Shame on the Los Angeles Dodgers. Shame on the San Diego Padres. Shame on the Colorado Rockies. Shame on the Arizona Diamondbacks. Shame on the San Francisco Giants. Shame on the Cincinnati Reds. Shame on the Chicago Cubs. Shame on the Milwaukee Brewers. Shame on the Miami Marlins. Shame on the Los Angeles Angels. Shame on the Oakland A’s. Shame on the Seattle Mariners. Shame on the Cleveland Indians. Shame on the Detroit Tigers. Shame on the Chicago White Sox. Shame on the Toronto Blue Jays. Shame on the Boston Red Sox. Shame on the Baltimore Orioles. Shame on the Tampa Bay Rays. And shame on the New York Yankees, who witnessed Wednesday why it’s such an obscene dereliction of duty that 20 teams still refuse to get onboard with something that should’ve been required well over a decade ago.

A projectile traveling 100 mph hit a child in the face at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. She was with her grandparents. She was not the first kid to get injured at the stadium this year, either. Just another victim of an anachronistic law and billion-dollar corporations perfectly happy to hide behind it.

“I just saw blood coming out of this poor girl’s face,” Minnesota Twins third baseman Eduardo Escobar told reporters, adding: “A ball like that can kill a kid. … It could’ve killed her.”

Eduardo Escobar was not the only player shaken by the incident. Twins second baseman Brian Dozier summed up the principled perspective succinctly: “It’s all about safety.” Todd Frazier, the Yankees third baseman who hit the 105-mph foul ball, said: “Yeah, I think the netting should be up. I think every stadium should have it.” This is the widely held view of the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has urged the league multiple times in collective bargaining to standardize netting that shields a far wider swath of fans. The league rejected the idea.

Less than two months ago, commissioner Rob Manfred told the New York Daily News: “I think the reluctance to do it on a league-wide basis only relates to the difficulty of having a single rule that fits 30 stadiums that obviously are not designed the same way.” And if this is the perspective of the man who runs baseball – that architectural dissimilarities are a valid and reasonable excuse for two-thirds of the teams in his sport to accept the possibility of a foul ball fracturing the skull of a child in 30 places, as happened to another 6-year-old girl in Atlanta seven years ago – then no wonder teams have taken no action. The man in charge of the game’s health is willing to endanger that of his consumers.

A projectile traveling 100 mph hit a child in the face at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. (AP)

The family of the girl in Atlanta sued, as have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others injured by flying objects in stadiums across the country. Most are stymied by what’s referred to as the Baseball Rule, which is essentially an assumption-of-risk standard to which fans are held. Teams do warn fans, on their ticket, with signage and in pregame announcements, that projectiles do come into the stands, and to be careful. At the same time, the notion that a warning offers any sort of protection is absurd; even if ready and attentive, the vast majority of people are not quick enough to read the path of a ball and duck out of its way in less than a second. Furthermore, if something exists to mitigate this risk – something that has been in Japanese stadiums for years, in hockey arenas for more than a decade after the death of a 13-year-old girl and, yes, in major league stadiums awfully similar to the 20 holdouts – it’s incumbent on teams to recognize this is not a matter of choice. It should be the new normal.

Because the truth is, the other excuses are every bit as preposterous as Manfred’s architecture gambit. Nets are an obstruction? Yes. They are. For about 5 seconds. Then your eyes adjust, and the nets might as well be invisible. The most expensive seats in every stadium – behind home plate – are protected with netting, and nobody seems altogether bothered by that. Nets prevent the possibility of foul-ball souvenirs? Maybe so. Which can be counteracted by encouraging players and coaches to flip a few extra balls into the stands every game. Nets wouldn’t be necessary if kids didn’t sit in danger areas? Ah. That’s a great idea. A game whose average fan is about to start collecting Social Security and needs every young fan it can get should cordon off kids in worse seats because those 50-somethings want their view. Nets are for wusses? Wusses, and parents who like to bring their children to games without fear of them leaving with a fractured skull, and adults who love the experience and ambience and amenities but may not understand the game well enough to know when to pay attention, and those who do understand the game well but hear their phone ding and reflexively grab it to check out a text, only to look up within that fraction of a second a ball is screaming into the stands and freeze, helpless.

Nets are for every fan, because surely the estimated 1,750 a year who get injured, according a 2014 Bloomberg report, weren’t all just people happening not to pay attention. Around 48 foul balls are hit per game. That’s 115,000-plus foul balls a year. And some are just foul and stay on the field of play, and others are high in the air and little threat for a catastrophic outcome, and the fact that the injury rate is on about 1.5 percent foul balls shows that fouls, in and of themselves, do not pose a grave danger. A subset of them unquestionably does, though, and the concern over these warrants action like the sort New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal took in May.

Espinal proposed legislation that would require every 5,000-plus-seat stadium in New York City to extend netting to both foul poles. By the middle of July, the New York Mets had added netting to the end of both dugouts. The Yankees did nothing beyond issue a statement in August that said they were “seriously exploring” doing the same as the Mets.

“This is as bad as it can get before someone being killed at the ballpark,” Espinal told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night after the injury at Yankee Stadium. “To see a young child get hit by a 105-mph ball. Thank God she wasn’t seriously injured – but to have that child laying in the hands of the family, bleeding, it was disheartening.”

Espinal said he has been in contact with the Yankees, who told him they are studying the issue. “It’s become abundantly clear that we don’t need a study to tell us fans aren’t safe,” Espinal said. So last week he scheduled a hearing for Oct. 25 in which he expects the Yankees and other teams that would need to abide by the law to explain its perspective and rationalize why it’s 2017 and they won’t join those definitively in the right.

Todd Frazier of the New York Yankees reacts after a child was hit by a foul ball off his bat in the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins. (Getty Images)

Bravo to the Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins, each of whom introduced extended netting before the 2016 season, when MLB’s new rules mandated teams expand theirs but not nearly far enough. Bravo, too, to the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros for joining them before the 2017 season, and to the Mets for proving that installing new netting in the middle of the year isn’t some unreasonable expectation.

None of this is excessive. It is right, and it is just, and if teams aren’t willing to act themselves, it is Manfred’s duty to make them. There’s a sense that it’s going to take something worse than what happened Wednesday to force change – the death of a child. Only that happened already. In 1970, a 14-year-old boy named Alan Fish went to a Dodgers game and was hit in the head by a line drive into the stands. He died four days later.

Negligence, in the eyes of a business like Major League Baseball, whose commissioner is a lawyer and whose senior staff is filled with them, means something very particular. Do not let the law’s narrow definition obscure the reality: Baseball and the teams that continue this foolish conceit are negligent, are culpable, are to blame. Fans deserve for this shame to be a thing of the past, to walk into stadiums with netting past the dugout and well up the line, to know that in addition to being fun, their baseball experience should be as safe as reasonably possible, too.

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