Few sounds in sports are more satisfying than the crack of the bat. But for too many baseball fans, it has come to signal something else: danger. Commentator Victor Wishna explains in this month’s edition of “A Fan’s Notes.”
Snagging a foul ball is, admittedly, one of the greatest thrills in sports — the ultimate hands-on experience. Only at a baseball game do fans get a chance to grab the ball and take it home as a trophy. It’s the dream of every little kid with a glove.
But too often, tragedy happens.
On Saturday night it happened again at Kauffman Stadium. For the second time in two weeks there a fan took a line-drive to the head. The woman was able to walk out on her own power, with help, holding a compress to staunch the bleeding. But often these incidents end with a wheelchair, a stretcher, a trip to the hospital or worse.
Last August Linda Goldbloom was celebrating her 79th birthday in Section 106 at Dodger Stadium when a ball ricocheted off her skull. She died four days later of acute intracranial hemorrhage. As one observer noted, “this is every baseball fan’s worst nightmare.”
Last year an Indiana University study found that more than 1,700 fans are hurt to some degree by foul balls each season, many requiring immediate medical attention. When more fans than players must leave a game due to injury, something is very wrong.
Of course there’s a simple way to mitigate the danger: extend the safety netting down the foul line. That’s been the standard for more than 30 years in Japan, where baseball is more popular than perhaps anywhere else, and games take on a raucous, college football-like atmosphere.
You wouldn’t think such an easy solution to such an obvious problem would be controversial. But too many folks, from the upper decks to the front office, are pushing back. Nets would disrupt the viewing experience, they claim, and the real problem is the careless fans. "Read the back of the ticket," they say, "or the warning signs around the stadium," as if the issue was liability and not safety.
"Get off your phones," they say, “pay attention,” as if the 3-year-old boy injured a week ago at a Royals-Indians game in Cleveland was too busy texting.
It’s not so surprising that folks who think a net is too opaque can’t see the holes in their own argument.
Yes, injuries are on the rise, but that likely has less to do with distractions and more with the increased speed of baseballs coming off bats, and the fact that newer stadium designs have put spectators about 20% closer to the field compared to a few decades ago.
Nobody goes to a game to stare at the ball every second. And even if they did, that wouldn’t be enough. According to the Sports Science Lab at Washington State University, a fan sitting just past the dugout has about 0.6 seconds to react, which is about half as long as it takes to say, "Washington State University."
Baseball, on the other hand, has taken far too long to respond. The commissioners’ office stated recently that it’s too hard to set league-wide standards, leaving it to each franchise to manage the safety at each distinct ballpark.
Despite calls from fans, coaches, and even the players’ union, you can count on one hand the teams that have started to extend netting closer to the foul poles. The Royals announced plans to do so earlier this month but there’s still no timeline for the project.
Change is coming, eventually. But at this point, even to appear net neutral is unconscionable.
Netting won’t eliminate risk, or anyone’s chance to seize an official bat-scuffed souvenir. Pop-ups will still pop up, and eventually come down. Those little kids with gloves will still dream. Just with fewer nightmares.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.