Saying they want to ensure fan safety, the Orioles plan to join a small but growing number of Major League Baseball teams that are extending protective netting all the way to the outfield foul poles in the lower sections, team spokesman Greg Bader said Friday.
The club has yet to make a formal announcement.
The move at Camden Yards will represent a significant change for the club — and for the sport — and follows an incident early this season in which Albert Almora Jr. of the Chicago Cubs hit a foul ball in Houston that struck and seriously injured a young child in the stands. Almora buried his face in his glove afterward and struggled to contain himself.
The new netting will be installed at Camden Yards and at the Orioles’ Sarasota, Fla., spring training stadium “no later than the start of the 2020 season, if not at an earlier point in time,” the team told The Baltimore Sun on Friday.
Just a few years ago, the Camden Yards netting protected only the backstop area behind home plate and stopped at the camera wells, which are cutout areas connected to the dugouts.
Before the start of the 2018 season, the Orioles extended the netting to a few sections beyond the dugout after a series of incidents across baseball in which fans were injured by balls or bats.
That included one in 2016, when an Orioles fan said her skull was fractured when Chris Davis’ bat went spinning wildly over the team’s dugout and into the fourth row where she sat with her fiance.
Many players, including some Orioles, said this season that they favored lengthening the netting after the Almora incident, and others around the league in which fans were struck.
“We are currently working with our experts and partners toward finalizing plans to extend the protective netting at both of our ballparks even further to each foul pole,” Bader said Friday. “In an effort to ensure we implement the right plan for those attending games at both venues, we are performing due diligence and will implement the plan our experts recommend as soon as possible."
He said fan safety was “of the utmost importance to the Orioles."
The Orioles are among the first teams to say they will extend the netting completely down the foul line. Other teams that have announced plans to do so are the Washington Nationals, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates.
For years, teams balanced the safety risk to fans with the clubs’ desire not to obstruct the views of premium seats.
The equation seemed to change as fan injuries were displayed repeatedly on social media and netting became more advanced and easier to see through.
“There is something nostalgic and sweet that baseball is kind of an interactive fan experience — we can catch a home run or foul ball and we can be part of the game if only for that moment,” said Jackie Howell, 57, a longtime Orioles fan and blogger. “But it’s always been dangerous and now it seems more dangerous than ever. The injuries have been devastating and that’s just unacceptable.”
Several players described being unnerved at the prospect of a fan being struck by a hard foul off their bat.
“I can never watch the ball go into the stands when I see it hard,” Orioles player Stevie Wilkerson said Friday. "I always turn my head. It makes me super anxious.”
Wilkerson said he supported lengthening the netting. So did teammate Trey Mancini, who said players never forget seeing fans get hit in the stands.
“I saw it happen in [the minor leagues with] Delmarva one time playing first base,” Mancini said. "There was an 8- or 9-year-old boy along the first-base line. He got hit in the chest and they had to resuscitate him.
“If it were up to me I’d have them all the way to the foul poles, have them even higher than they are now. A lot of the argument is it ruins the game experience for people, but people can still throw a ball over the net and into the crowd.”
The Nationals plan to have extended netting at their stadium installed by July 22 — the team’s first game after the All-Star break.
“Over the past few weeks, we have seen several fans injured by bats and balls leaving the field of play at other stadiums,” Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner wrote last month in a letter to fans. “I could not help but become emotional last month watching the Astros-Cubs game when a 4-year-old little girl was hit by a line drive.”
The Nationals said they were replacing the existing shorter netting with a knotless material with “a higher degree of transparency.”
Several Orioles and Nationals fans said they regard the extended netting as necessary, if not ideal.
“It’s nice not having it in front of you, but I understand it,” said Chris Diggs, who sat at a recent Washington game with his sons, ages 11 and 8, in prime foul-ball territory on the outfield side of the first-base dugout.
The netting will soon extend to where the family was sitting.
Orioles fan Kathleen Galloway of Pasadena sat Friday night in lower-section seats down the third-base line that are unprotected from fouls.
“I’m terrified as a parent having my children here,” said Galloway, 38, a federal probation officer. She has two teenagers.
“Everywhere we’ve been [in the stands] we’ve been this close to getting hit,” she said, holding her fingers close together.
Some fans and pundits have said the risk for fans has grown because so many spectators habitually stare at their cellphones instead of watching the action.
But Howell, the Orioles fan, said: “This is not an issue of fans not paying attention to the game. To be able to react in an instant to a broken bat or a line-drive foul coming at you at 100 miles per hour? That’s why major leaguers get paid millions of dollars. They can do that. Most fans can’t.”