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Wed, Aug. 21

Kobritz: Extended netting is coming to a ballpark near you
BEYOND THE LINES

MLB ballparks are about to become safer for fans.

In 2014, Bloomberg News estimated 1,750 fans per year are injured by batted balls at Major League ballparks. While deaths are rare – only three have been recorded in 170 years of professional baseball, two of them at Dodger Stadium – some injuries are serious.

Most foul balls occur in the area directly behind home plate. Until recently, that was the only area of the ballpark protected by netting. But in 2015, MLB encouraged teams to extend netting from home plate to the near ends of both dugouts. By 2018, all 30 stadiums had exceeded that recommendation, having installed netting to the far ends of the dugouts.

Yet serious injuries persist. This year alone, a two-year old girl was seriously injured by a 106-mph line drive in Houston’s Minute Maid Park. Less than two weeks later, a woman sitting past the third-base dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, was struck in the face. Following that incident, a hard line-drive landed on the head of a fan sitting beyond the netting on the first-base line in Dodger Stadium. Those incidents prompted the website FiveThirtyEight to answer the question: Which areas of the ballpark were the most dangerous for fans?

There’s no central database of the location of MLB foul balls so the website turned to Baseball Savant. A search of their batted-ball data identified the 10 highest foul ball totals at a single game played in 10 different stadiums prior to June 5 this year. Stadiums ranged from old – Dodger Stadium, the third oldest ballpark in MLB – to new – SunTrust Park in Atlanta is MLB’s newest ballpark. The ballparks varied in architecture, altitude and seating arrangements.

An analysis of the data revealed that the unprotected areas between the far end of the dugouts and the foul poles received almost as many foul balls as the area from home plate to the ends of the dugouts. More importantly, the foul balls hit in the unprotected areas had a higher exit velocity, meaning fans had less time to take protective action, even when they were aware of imminent danger.

The age-old argument against expanding the netting was most fans wouldn’t accept watching a game through a net, but thanks to advances in technology, today’s netting is barely visible. After the incident at Guaranteed Rate Field, the White Sox became the first MLB team to extend the netting from foul pole to foul pole. Other teams quickly followed the White Sox’ lead. Currently, eight MLB teams have either extended the netting to the foul poles or announced they would do so before opening day next year. Almost as many MiLB teams have announced they will take similar action.

Fans should be aware that the additional netting is no guarantee of protection from foul balls. The fan killed in Dodger Stadium last year was sitting in a protected area when a foul ball went up and over the net. Nonetheless, expanding the net from foul pole to foul pole is long overdue.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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