Time for MLB to put fans' safety first -- even if fans don't all agree

Every time a fan gets badly injured by a broken bat or a sizzling foul ball, Major League Baseball pauses to consider whether it is doing enough to protect the fans who sit in the most vulnerable areas of its 30 ballparks.

It appears that the bloody, frightening scene at Fenway Park last week may finally push the sport to take decisive action, and it should.


When 44-year-old Tonya Carpenter was rushed to a Boston hospital with what was originally characterized as a life-threatening head injury when she was struck by a broken bat during a game between the Red Sox and Oakland A's, the debate began anew and baseball commissioner Rob Manfred did not hide from it.

"When you have an issue like this, an incident like this, you have to go back and re-evaluate where you are on all of your safety issues and trust me, we will do that,'' Manfred told reporters before the start of the amateur draft on Monday.


What that means remains to be seen, but it is long past time for baseball to make some pretty simple changes that would reduce fan injuries dramatically — starting with extending the protective netting behind home plate to the ends of the two dugouts.

It wouldn't cost much and there's no question that it would make the parks safer for the lower-deck fans directly in the line of fire. That, and further R&D expenditures to make bats more resistant to explosive breakage, won't totally eliminate projectile injuries in the stands, but it's a reasonable solution that would solve most of the problem.

That doesn't necessarily mean that it would be a popular one.

"I do not want the net,'' said longtime season-ticket holder Mitchell Anest of Granite. "I do not want a screen. What you need to do, if you have a kid with you, is sit on the outside and make sure they only text between innings."

David Baker of Ellicott City, who was sitting in the third row behind the Orioles dugout with his young son, Zane, had a slightly different view. He didn't seem worried about getting hit, but didn't see a huge downside to some extra protection.

"I don't know how often a bat flies into the stands," he said, "but it's probably a good idea. I don't think it would affect the view too much. They do it in the NHL."

The NHL mandated netting above the plexiglass shields in every arena after a teenager was struck and killed by a puck that was deflected into the stands in 2002.

Time for a disclaimer: I'm not a totally objective observer on this subject.

Early in my career here in Baltimore, my 10-year-old son Dan was hit in the temple by a line drive on a neighborhood trip to Prince George's Stadium to see the Bowie Baysox. Thankfully, despite the imprint of the baseball threading on the side of his forehead and part of a scary night waiting for test results, he was not seriously hurt. But I still get a sick feeling thinking about that night.

Nobody wants to be in that situation and the players don't want to be on the front end of one of those terrifying incidents.

Orioles first baseman Chris Davis remembers how he felt after hitting a home run in the minors that actually landed in a baby stroller, striking a child in the stomach. That freakish scenario would not have been prevented by extra netting along the baselines, but Davis said that shielding the fans who are barely 100 feet from home plate should be a no-brainer.

"That's an awful feeling,'' Davis said. "That was kind of a special circumstance, but I think, and I've heard several players say at least down to the end of the dugouts, putting a net up would save a lot of people. If you think about it, some of the worst ones are the balls that you pull right over the top of the dugout and, when your bat breaks, where's it going to go? Right over the top of the dugout."


Davis was not trying to make a point, but he lost his bat in the first inning of Tuesday night's game against the Red Sox and it landed about 10 rows behind the O's dugout. Fortunately, no one appeared to be struck by it. Just minutes later, Sox outfielder Mookie Betts also lost the handle and his bat flew toward the seats just to the right of the Boston on-deck circle before being stopped by the home plate netting.

Point. Counterpoint.

"I know that they put language on the back of the ticket that says the fan accepts responsibility for any ball or bat that goes into the stands,'' Davis said, "but I think with everything that's going on … with the video boards they have nowadays … people are looking everywhere, so I think that would definitely help."

Outfielder Steve Pearce had a frightening near-miss involving a child early in his career and pointed to other common-sense safety measures that MLB has taken over the past decade, including compulsory batting helmets for base coaches and net barriers in front of the dugouts to protect each team.

"I think the game is constantly changing and I think safety is the number one concern,'' said Pearce, who has seen too many screamers zip over the dugout well ahead of the reaction time of the fans in the front rows.

"I know one thing,'' he said. "Me being a father with a daughter ... I'm not going to be sitting there."

Orioles officials would not talk about any plans to alter Oriole Park, no doubt waiting for a cue from MLB. Owner Peter Angelos was on a business trip Tuesday and not available for comment.

"That's been talked about in each of the last couple collective bargaining periods [with the players union],'' said Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette, "and they discuss it whenever there's an incident, but we haven't heard anything from the league."

There might be a precedent for the Orioles. They installed netting on some of the outfield fencing at Ed Smith Stadium, their spring training facility, to protect passing automobiles from batting practice home runs. If you're going to do that to keep balls from bouncing off Tuttle Avenue in Sarasota, Fla., why wouldn't you do something similar to keep them from bouncing off your most loyal fans?

The answer might be that netting infringes on the close-up view that season-ticket holders and after-market ticket buyers pay so much money to get. No one complains about the netting behind home plate because the benefit is obvious. The sideline netting would create some modest sight-line issues, but it's probably a fair tradeoff for the dramatically improved safety.

"Every time I see someone sitting there with a young kid, and until you see that happen … there's no time. There's no time to get out of the way,'' manager Buck Showalter said. "We all have an opinion on it. I'm in favor of anything that makes it safer for the fans."



Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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