It hadn’t even been a full week since the baseball world was shocked and horrified by Tonya Carpenter’s life-threatening injuries at Fenway Park, after being struck in the head by a broken bat, when tragedy struck again in Fort Wayne, Ind.
It was June 11, 2015, just six days after the Fenway incident, when a fan named Jennifer Myers was hit flush in the face by a foul ball at a Fort Wayne TinCaps (Low A; Midwest League) game at Parkview Field.
For TinCaps president Mike Nutter, Myers’ injury was one too many. Coming off the heels of Carpenter’s frightening experience in Boston, it further galvanized an idea that would soon be embraced throughout the game.
Parkview Field is now one of many MLB and MiLB ballparks that will have expanded protective netting in 2016, down each baseline to the end of the dugouts. On Sunday night at Kauffman Stadium, the Kansas City Royals became the first Major League team to debut netting that extended to the outer edges of both dugouts, and 18 other MLB teams have made some changes. Countless MiLB facilities are following suit.
“I think that we’ve talked about it for a little while,” Nutter told Ballpark Digest in March. “It’s just, for me, the practical thing to do. We were driving back from the Winter Meetings in December and I was talking to my owner and I said, ‘We’ve been talking about this, let’s just do it.’ We just felt like, for our fans, this was the best thing to do.”
The TinCaps added 110 feet of mesh netting to their existing nets, extending them to the end of each dugout. The nets are 20 feet high, greatly diminishing the likelihood of a line-drive foul ball or shattered bat injuring an unsuspecting fan close to home plate.
At the major league level, Promats Athletics, using “invisible” netting manufactured by NET Systems made with Black Dyneema material, has installed netting at such venerable ballparks as Fenway, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field.
For the players, at least, the new netting brings a certain peace of mind that the foul balls off their bats will be less likely to cause an injury.
“Some of the times (when) you leave seats for your family, it’s right behind the dugout or it’s five rows up, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable with my mom sitting that close,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer told the Associated Press before Sunday’s season opener.
Hosmer can still recall witnessing a fan get injured in Cleveland during his rookie season. “I remember (manager) Ned (Yost) asking me if I wanted to finish the game because it was such a terrible feeling not knowing if the lady is going to be OK or not, not knowing what’s going to happen,” Hosmer said.
Balancing the practicality of increased safety with the aesthetic pleasure of watching a game without the distraction of increased netting is a balancing act that all baseball organizations are trying to master under the new system.
Longtime fans, especially those with season tickets, who now find themselves sitting in sections that are net-protected have voiced concerns about their ability to continue enjoying the game.
Like all executives, Nutter is sensitive to the issue. But in 2016, when so many fans are using their hand-held technology to enhance their ballpark experience—combined with the relatively new phenomenon of broken maple bats sending wooden shrapnel hurtling into the seats at a seemingly higher rate—it was becoming clear that extra protection for fans close to home plate overrode any potential complaints.
“You’re more likely to be in a car accident coming to or leaving the game than some horrific injury here,” Nutter said. “But we also felt like, as a society, being plugged in with social media and all those kinds of things, that there are more people looking down [at their phones] than ever. I joked with somebody that some fans told me on some surveys that we did, ‘We don’t want additional netting, but we want free Wi-Fi throughout the ballpark.’ I just laughed. You can’t have it both ways.”
Indeed, especially at the minor league level, organizations encourage fans to tweet and take pictures of their ballpark experience and upload them to their social media platforms as a way of promotion. But all that time looking at smartphones is one less minute of paying attention to the game on the field, which can make the difference between avoiding a ball or bat and being struck. It is a circumstance most teams could not have envisioned even a decade ago, before the explosion of social media participation and smartphone technology. Nutter recalls reading about a Big Ten football program having trouble selling tickets to its students because the stadium lacked proper Wi-Fi capability.
“They couldn’t get enough bandwith to get on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to tell their friends they were at the game,” Nutter said. “In the old days, it was just good enough to go to the game and tell our friends about it later. And we’ve embraced that, we want people telling their friends that they’re at Parkview Field and they’re having an unbelievable time. But we couldn’t have predicted this [social media] explosion, even when we built the place not quite eight years ago. So we try to embrace it, but we tell people, if you’re going to be on there and you’re telling people you’re having an excellent time, that bodes well for us as a business. But it does make you [vulnerable] when balls and bats are flying around.”
Not that teams aren’t sensitive to some of the game’s charm that will be lost to the new nets. Fans will lose access across the backs of dugouts to hand players balls and other memorabilia to sign and give back. And not only will there be fewer foul-ball souvenirs, there will be fewer tosses into the stands at the end of innings to sections behind the nets.
Nutter has already talked to his incoming players about the need to be more creative, in order to keep those fans properly connected to the game.
“Last year we threw around 5,000 of what we call softy balls up into the crowd,” Nutter said. “This year, we’ve ordered 10,000. We don’t want people to feel like they’re in a cage, segregated from the place, they’re out there and we’re in here. So now guys will be throwing more stuff than ever. But we feel like it’s time.”
Nutter said only one season-ticket holder has thus far expressed a desire to move to a different location because of the new netting, and that opposition to the nets has been limited. He believes criticism of the nets will go the way of NHL and minor league hockey, which installed extra netting following the 2002 death of a 13-year-old fan that was hit with a stray puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game.
“We’re in the town with of one of the top drawing minor league hockey teams in the country, the Fort Wayne Komets, and I had just moved here from Nashville when that was happening, and you heard a ton of the diehards saying, ‘If you add that netting, it ruins everything,’ Nutter said. “Everyone that thought it was going to be a negative thing in hockey, it just didn’t end up happening.”
Nutter added that the TinCaps are working to ensure that fans in Parkview Field will become acclimated with the change.
“A handful of people have said, ‘You just took one of the top ballparks – their words – and just ruined it.’ We don’t think so, but we understand the reaction to a change like this. But there’s also 1,500 seats in our seating bowl where if you want to sit in the main bowl in the chair backs, you won’t be behind the net. So we just tried to do it for both.
“You know, in the Minor Leagues, it’s as much of a carnival as it is a baseball game, with all the promotions going on, is everyone focused on the batter every pitch? We felt that answer was no. We can’t prevent them all, but what if we mitigate all those hard shots right over the dugouts? We felt like we needed to head that off right now, for us.”
Image courtesy of the Fort Wayne TinCaps.