Several years ago, I was at a Frederick Keys baseball game and was taking photos from up on the concourse level. I was about even with first base and the concourse is about 20 rows up, but between the way a foul ball spun off the bat and the way I was looking throwing my camera lens, I wasn’t able to see that the ball was coming right for me.
In what’s one of the few times it probably payed off to be chubby (cause it provided a little bit of a cushion), I was hit right in the stomach. It definitely hurt and I had a bruise for several weeks afterwards, but I really can’t complain too much. I was lucky because I was relatively far back and the ball wasn’t hit that hard, so I wasn’t injured beyond a bruised ego and a slightly bruised stomach.
With that being said, it’s never fun to hear of a young child be hit with a foul ball at a major league ballgame. And the strong reaction of Albert Almora after a line drive off his bat hit a four year old in the head at a game in Houston last night between the Cubs and Astros shows how the whole situation is one that nobody wants to see. Almora was clearly shaken by the event and had to be comforted by his teammates. He later referenced his own children while saying he’s “just praying” and is “speechless.”
According to a statement released by the Astros last night, the girl was hospitalized but there hasn’t been an update on her condition. There have been some reports, however, that she was conscious and seemed to be alert after being hit in the head. No matter what the results of her hospital stay, though, the incident has already forced MLB executives to have some discussion about the safety of fans seated near the playing field.
Most folks who have been to a game have probably seen the signs saying you should watch out for batted balls and other objects (like broken bats) that might come into the stands, but nobody really ever expects to be hurt by one and others might not even see them coming if they’re not fully paying attention to the game. Plus, even MLB players who get paid millions of dollars to play baseball for a living can’t always get out of the way of a ball coming at them, so we can’t really expect fans to always be able to protect themselves (especially if they’re young).
So the question obviously becomes “what else can be done to help protect fans?” After previous incidents of fans being severely injured and some even passing away after being hit by foul balls, all 30 MLB teams have now extended the netting down the basepaths at least to the dugouts. This allows some extra protection compared to previous years, but it still doesn’t protect everyone — as is evident by the events in Houston last night.
In what can only be described as a natural reaction right now, Almora told reporters after the game that he wants “to put a net around the whole stadium.” I highly doubt that will ever actually happen and MLB has made it clear that they believe fans essentially enter at their own risk (next time you go to a game, read the little disclaimer on the tickets). But executives do appear to realize they have a PR nightmare on their hands right now.
The league issued a statement saying the incident was “extremely upsetting” and have highlighted how teams have voluntarily extended the netting protecting fans in recent years. They added that they “will continue [their] efforts on this important issue” with “last night’s events in mind.” But many people are saying that’s simply not enough and there should be clear cut guidelines from MLB for the sake of everyone involved.
One of the potential solutions being proposed that might actually have a chance of being implemented is MLB regulating that protective netting be extended all the way down the infield. This essentially already happens at most ballparks during batting practice, which is a time when a lot of young fans get really close to the action (though some people complain this actually prevents some interaction — like getting autographs — with players). While it will always be hard to avoid line drives that sometimes travel over 100 mph, extending the netting to the end of the infield would at least allow fans a little more time to react.
It should be noted, however, that the MLB Players Association seems to support the concept Almora was promoting as it’s tried on multiple occasions to actually have the protective netting extend from foul poll to foul poll. This concept is already in place in Japan and appears to have the support of a lot of MLB players, especially if you look at the statements Almora and several others made in the aftermath of last night’s incident.
Taking all of this into account, the only way there will truly be changes to MLB’s netting policy is if pressure from fans and players continues to mount even after the coverage of this one particular fan fades. Hopefully it won’t take another tragedy to force some serious discussion on how to protect fans while still allowing the interaction fans crave.