SARASOTA, FLA. — Part of the allure of spring training is that it allows fans to watch games in a close and casual setting. The venues are more intimate than the big ballparks where teams play in their home cities, the players are more laid back as they prepare for the season and the warm weather adds to a welcoming environment that can’t be duplicated once the calendar reaches Opening Day.
This season, with a renewed concern for fan safety at ballparks across the country — sparked by an incident involving a young girl who was hit by a line drive at Yankee Stadium in September — all 30 major league ballparks expanded protective netting until at least the far edge of the dugouts.
This spring, netting was expanded at spring training ballparks in Florida and Arizona, including Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. For fans who have been used to being close to the game, the high nets around the seating bowl have taken some adjusting to this spring.
Like at Camden Yards, protective netting previously extended only between the near corners of the dugouts, but now it’s over the roof of both dugouts and beyond. At Ed Smith Stadium, the netting extends three sections beyond the far edge of each dugout.
The Orioles said they’ve received favorable responses from fans attending games in Sarasota.
“We’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from fans, particularly those fans with children, who appreciate that the club continues to make fan safety a top priority,” Greg Bader, the Orioles vice president of communications and marketing, said via email. “Like the home plate netting, which has been in place at ballparks for generations, the extended netting is becoming a normal part of the ballpark experience.”
The club declined to provide specific details regarding what factored into the decisions on how far the netting would extend in Sarasota. Because it’s only the first year, the way the team employs the netting could change in the future.
Orioles fan Roger Norman has four seats in the front row of Section 105 at Ed Smith Stadium, two sections beyond the first base dugout and behind the netting. His vantage is a reminder of how close he sits to the action, where the first base coaches stand about 60 feet away. Not only can a foul ball off the end of a right-handed hitter’s bat find its way into his section, but an errant throw from third base can find his row right in its crosshairs. He’s used to being able to reach over the low railing and get an autograph, get a photo and have a baseball tossed his way, but now, the netting rises high in the air.
“Spring training has always been fan friendly and the players are much more accessible and easier to talk to than they would be in the regular season,” said Norman, a Carterville, Ill., resident who was wearing a Brooks Robinson jersey during Thursday’s Orioles spring game against the Boston Red Sox. “The bottom line though is that we have to look at safety. I know there’s a lot of people who may say it’s not the same as it used to be, but you have to consider balls coming at you at different times. I’ve seen a couple people in this section — we’ve had tickets here for eight years in this area — and I’ve seen people get hit with balls in this area. Safety has to come first.”
Mike and Jeffrey Carr, a father and son from Linthicum, sat behind the Orioles dugout for Thursday’s game, and while the netting that was over the dugout wasn’t a huge distraction, Jeffrey said it creates a sense of detachment from the players fans come to watch.
“A big deal was always flipping balls over the dugout,” said Jeffrey Carr, a 20-year-old UMBC student. “It’s more of a personal interaction with the players. Now, I don’t want to say they’re caged in, but there’s that aesthetic. There’s a barrier, even if it’s just a net. The interaction doesn’t feel as personal. Now, you have to toss them over the net instead of just roll it to a kid or hand stuff over the dugout. … To be a baseball fan, it has this separation from the players that I don’t like. But I’m also one of those people who if I’m at a game, I’m not texting or reading. I’m here very much for the game, so I’m here for the foul balls.”
The previous night, they went to watch the Orioles play on the road against the New York Yankees in Tampa, where they said the netting seemed to be thicker and more obtrusive, but it didn’t reach beyond the dugouts as it does at Ed Smith Stadium.
“You can’t see — the one at Steinbrenner Field, it’s so thick,” said Mike Carr, 64. “It distorts your vision a little bit. This one isn’t too bad. I think it’s great as far as nobody getting hurt anymore. It will take a while to get used to it. The netting behind home plate, it seems like it doesn’t distort it as much. Maybe it’s because we’ve never had it before.”
Said Jeffrey Carr: “That’s why you sit here. You get that feel. It’s not like I can’t see through it, but it’s this barrier. We were with a guy at the Yankees game last night and he was taking pictures and all his pictures had this watermark that was this netting in the foreground. I think it’s better for safety, but as far as interaction, it hurt your ability to be able to connect with the players.”
Along with the proximity to the field of play, Norman said that demographic of a spring training crowd makes the expanded netting important.
“There’s the fact that in spring training, you have a lot of families here, which means you have children down in this section and you also have an older population that is coming to the game, too, for the most part, than what you’ll find in the regular season,” Norman said. “Therefore, if you take that into consideration, the reaction time may not be as good as it once was. I’m speaking for myself.”
After sitting behind the netting, Jeffrey Carr said he might be more likely to purchase seats higher up at Camden Yards so the nets wouldn’t be in his line of sight as much.
“I think for me personally, it makes me want to sit on the club level more,” he said. “Usually we have both seats behind home plate, but when I’m looking at Opening Day tickets, it might affect my buying choice as opposed to sitting right behind the dugout.”