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Protective netting being extended at some MLB ballparks, but still no word on Camden Yards

Change doesn’t often occur quickly in baseball, and that’s because it’s a game steeped in its tradition, sometimes to a fault. Though the topic of possibly expanding safety netting at major league ballparks to protect fans from foul balls and bats has several times moved to the forefront — as it did after a 5-year-old girl was hit by a 105-mph foul ball Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium — the discussion has not resulted in creating standards across all ballparks for fan safety.

Some have seen the ultimate damage a foul ball can do firsthand, such as Orioles relief pitcher Darren O’Day, who was with Double-A Arkansas when he witnessed the on-field death of Mike Coolbaugh, a former major league third baseman who was hit in the head by a foul ball and killed while coaching first base for Tulsa 10 years ago.

After the death of Coolbaugh — who was the brother of current Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh — every first- and third-base coach at the minor and major league level must now wear a helmet.

“In my time in the league, I’ve seen people pass away at baseball games,” O’Day said. “It affects the players. Sometimes it takes something like that, something big, to effect change. [Scott] Coolbaugh’s brother passing away from a line drive on the field finally got guys wearing helmets and being a little more aware.”

Seeing what happened at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, including the distressed faces of players from both teams — including Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier, who hit the ball into the stands — was enough for O’Day to campaign for increased netting.

Since the incident, six teams — the Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Detroit Tigers, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners — indicated plans to extend netting by next Opening Day. Those teams join 10 others that have already extended netting beyond the dugouts.

“I see that as continuation of a process that’s really good for the game over the long haul,” Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday in San Diego.

The Orioles are not in that group. The club has said nothing about the additional fan protection at Camden Yards, where the net behind home plate stretches to the near side of the camera pits attached to each dugout.

Calls and emails last week seeking comments from high-ranking members of the organization about whether the club is considering additional netting went unreturned.

“That type of accident is upsetting for all of us that work in the game,” Manfred said Thursday about last week’s incident. “You saw it in the players on the field and believe me, believe me, equally upsetting for people who work in front offices around the league. Safety in our ballparks has been a constant agenda item for us for the last couple of years.”

Major League Baseball has struggled to enact a universal policy when it comes to protective netting, leaving the decision in the hands of the clubs themselves, mostly because ballparks have different dimensions and distances from home plate to the stands.

Scott Coolbaugh politely declined to be interviewed for his story, but his brother’s widow, Mandy, has been a longtime advocate for increased netting since her husband’s death a decade ago.

Before her husband’s death, Mandy Coolbaugh said he often feared someone would get seriously injured or killed by a foul ball. She said he would often track her when she walked into the ballpark with the couple’s two young sons until she took her seat behind the netting, and that one time he was angry with her for meeting a friend who had seats behind the third-base dugout, fearing for her safety.

“That night I got an earful,” she said. “I told him that I just ran down for a second and he looked at me and said, ‘All it takes is a second for you to get hit.’ He was right. I never made that mistake again. He was fearful of that. I remember him saying a lot, ‘People get hit left and right and they don’t realize they can’t see the stadium. They think they’re not going to get hit. And it’s going to take someone being killed before things will get changed,’ and that saddened him.

“Obviously, with the coaches’ helmets, it took someone being killed before something was changed,” Mandy Coolbaugh added.

In the most recently negotiated collective bargaining agreement, the Major League Baseball Players Association campaigned for more protective netting and higher railings at major league parks, but it was not included in the new CBA.

“Personally, I hope they’d extend the nets,” said O’Day, the team’s player union representative. “I’d hope every stadium does. With all the technology we have now, there’s got to be a way to make these nets fan-friendly, too.”

According to a 2014 Bloomberg study, 1,750 fans a year suffer some degree of injury from balls hit into the stands at major league games.

After the 2015 season, MLB issued recommendations to extend netting behind home plate at all major league parks to at least the near side of the dugouts and within 70 feet of home plate.

At that time, the Orioles did nothing to extend their netting behind home plate because they were technically within the recommendations because netting reached to the near edge of the photo pits, which are considered part of the dugout. The netting at the Orioles’ Sarasota spring training home at Ed Smith Stadium was also deemed compliant.

There are few ballparks more steeped in tradition than Camden Yards — which this season is celebrating its 25th anniversary. In an effort to maintain its presence as one of the crown jewels of retro parks, the park has undergone few changes.

There have been structural improvements over the years — a new field was sodded and new LED light fixtures were added this past offseason, and the rubber warning track was replace with dirt before the 2013 season — but aesthetic adaptations to the ballpark have long been avoided. The addition of the center-field roof deck in 2012 — a modification that has been seen as a huge success — was made only after extreme vetting.

At the Minnesota Twins’ Target Field — baseball’s third-newest park (2010) and one of its most highly regarded — netting was added beyond the dugouts before the 2016 season, at which time the dugouts were the closest in the majors to home plate.

At the Pittsburgh Pirates' highly regarded retro-feel PNC Park, where the Orioles will open a two-game series Tuesday night, netting was extended beyond both dugouts before this season.

“If you put a net up or not, there is not going to be any difference in experience for me at Camden Yards,” said ESPN “Baseball Tonight” host Karl Ravech. “Zero, other than the fact that if I go there with my children or grandchildren, someday, I know I don’t have to worry about them getting hit in the head by a batted ball that travels off a bat at 100 mph. I’d have a much easier time sitting there being relaxed.

“Any conversation I have with anybody that tries to qualify why we should not have nets, that’s a conversation ender. There’s no conversation that goes on with me that says ‘but’ because I don’t want to hear about it. There is no ‘but’ about putting netting up and there never should have been in my opinion.”

Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has long campaigned for uniform standards in parks — from dugouts to warning tracks to fences — made that argument again Sunday but didn’t specifically address netting.

“We're thinking about this in all ballparks,” Showalter said. “Why wouldn't it be standard everywhere? Why wouldn't it be standard lengths, standard safety features, standard warning tracks, standard fence structures? Why not? Why do we ... I'm not going to talk about netting either.”

In March, an Ellicott City woman filed a suit in Baltimore Circuit Court against MLB and the Orioles after she was hit by a bat that flew out of Orioles first baseman Chris Davis’ hands in his backswing in a 2016 game. She is suing for $75,000 in compensatory damages and an injunction to require netting at Camden Yards that extends to the far end of both dugouts. The case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing in April. Davis is not being charged in the suit.

The plaintiff, Patricia Dowdell, was sitting in the fourth row behind the Orioles dugout when she was hit by the bat, suffering “skull and orbital fractures, subarachnoid hemorrhage, brain swelling, permanent traumatic brain injury,” according to the suit.

Said Brendan Klaproth, Dowdell’s attorney: “Studies show and statistics show that this is a danger zone where fans are more susceptible to injury. It’s for the same reason why there’s netting behind home plate. And then as we saw last Wednesday, if the netting’s not there, fans are going to get injured. It’s an unacceptable risk up until this point that MLB has tolerated.”

A long-standing argument against added netting is that fans should simply be paying more attention to what’s happening on the field — and stadiums have long posted signage and made announcements reminding fans to be alert — but that stance has perhaps been compromised in recent years as fans attending games have become more encouraged to multitask on their smartphones.

At Camden Yards, the team encourages fans to use social media during games to get their Instagram photos shown on the video board and to use a #bringmefood hashtag for a chance to have concessions sent to their seat. There are already many longer-standing in-game distractions, from the center-field video boards to the out-of-town scores posted on the right-field wall.

And now, MLB, through its MLB Advanced Media arm, makes finding game-related information easier to find on a smartphone. MLBAM offers an MLB At Bat app that allows fans to find real-time play-by-play as well as track pitch types and speeds, exit velocities and watch on-demand video replays, not just for the game they’re attending, but for any game. The MLB Ballpark app — for which an advertisement has been played on the video board before every home game this season — is more centered on the in-park experience, offering maps and information on specific parks and offering prizes for checking in at various parks.

“There’s just so many distractions in today’s world to just say, ‘Well, you should have been paying attention,’” O’Day said. “And these little kids can’t, so hopefully we do the right thing and put the nets up.

“I think in the age of smartphones and litigation, it’s just a no-brainer to extend the nets. As a player, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t extend them. As a fan, personally, I don’t know if I would bring my little kid and sit two rows behind the dugout, but even that’s not going to [be a] safeguard. You can get hit down the lines.”

Mandy Coolbaugh has been frustrated by the lack of progress in increasing netting in the 10 years since her husband’s death, especially as her sons have gotten older and she’s noticed safety hazards at lower levels off the game. Her oldest son, Jacob, recently played in the Little League World Series last year, and she noticed how base coaches in those games weren’t wearing helmets, and petitioned Little League to no avail.

She hopes the recent attention placed on netting will facilitate progress.

“This topic, it comes up a lot when something happens and then a few weeks later it quiets down and then another incident happens so it’s brought up again,” she said. “I know Mike would want those nets extended. I know in my heart he would.

“Baseball was our life, and it was a great life. But over the last 10 years, when we go to baseball games, we still leave with tears in eyes. Baseball will always have a different meaning now, and we hope no one else would have to experience that.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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