When major league ballparks reopen, masks will keep fans safe from COVID-19 virus particles.
They won’t, however, do much to keep fans safe from fouled-off baseballs, and some of those who have been hurt support a petition calling on Major League Baseball to extend protective netting at major and minor league ballparks.
“You can’t tell me you’re taking 4- to 5- to 16-year-olds with their cellphones to a game where they purposely put things on the scoreboard to get you on your screen to text and send messages and expect the child to pay attention, or even an adult to pay attention the entire time,” said Monte Hoskey, the father of an injured child.
“They could do more, make announcements, but the only thing 100 percent that’s going to stop it is looking at the netting.”
Hoskey’s daughter Alexis was 4 years old in 2011 when a foul ball struck her just above the left eye at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, fracturing her skull and causing a brain bleed. She was recently diagnosed with ADHD from the brain trauma.
For more than a century, foul balls — some traveling at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour — have been striking both alert and distracted spectators. Two deaths have resulted, in 1970 and 2018. Incidents have sometimes led to undisclosed settlements, but more frequently to unsuccessful lawsuits, with MLB’s “Baseball Rule,” which places risk in the hands of fans, shielding it from liability.
A spate of recent incidents — including a 1-year-old seriously injured at Yankee Stadium in 2017 and a 2-year-old left with permanent brain injury after a 2019 incident in Houston — raised the concern level, leading MLB to recommend more netting.
After saying, “The safety of our fans in the ballpark is of paramount concern both to Major League Baseball and to the individual clubs” in December 2019, commissioner Rob Manfred announced that in 2020 all 30 clubs “will have netting in place that extends substantially beyond the far end of the dugout,” with the netting in seven ballparks extended to the foul poles.
Structural peculiarities in some ballparks, said Manfred, make foul-pole-to-foul-pole netting “very difficult,” because supporting cables would be in the field of play.
The pandemic kept fans from attending games last season, so there’s no way of knowing yet whether the extra netting will lead to more safety. But petition organizer Jordan Skopp is sure it will not be enough.
Calling baseball “as bad as Big Tobacco was,” Skopp said MLB has been negligent for decades in protecting fans and that “most of those times, you were in harm’s way, in an unintentional shooting gallery, if you will, off a bat.”
Citing pending litigation, MLB declined to comment.
The Red Sox extended the netting at Fenway Park before the 2018 season beyond the visitors dugout on the third-base side to Field Box 79, which is where the angled seating section meets the wall leading to the left-field foul pole, as well as to Section 9 on the first-base side and in the horizontal canopy behind home plate.
A Red Sox spokesperson said feedback from fans has been “mainly positive.” As for plans to extend the netting any more, the club said, “We continue to examine this issue, along with MLB.”
Stephanie Wapenski, formerly of Watertown, was at Fenway Park for a Red Sox-Yankees game in July 2015 when a foul ball hit her right between the eyes.
“All I saw was a flash of light, the quickest flash of light, and then just utter confusion,” she recalled.
She was able to walk up the aisle steps before being put on a stretcher, and she recalled a medic saying, “The good news is, we can’t see skull.”
Wapenski required 30-40 stitches and still needs an annual CT scan. She has maintained her Red Sox fandom, even getting married at Fenway Park after the incident, but in the three games she has attended since then, “It’s not the same, it’s heightened,” she said. “I’m hesitant. I always used to keep score. Now I’m kind of nervous to even do that because I don’t keep looking down as often as I used to.”
In a return to Fenway Park after the netting was extended, Wapenski checked out the safety factor from her old seat.
“Unless there was some bizarre gap or something like that in the netting, absolutely it would have saved me,” she said.
As for the suggestion that the netting detracts from fans’ open-air viewing experience, Wapenski and Hoskey said it’s a bogus argument.
“They’ve done a lot of surveys, a lot of testing, and the netting is so strong and so minuscule that it doesn’t affect the viewing of the game,” said Hoskey. “The only thing it does is reduce your risk of being injured.”
Skopp, Hoskey, and Wapenski want baseball to release data on where balls are most likely to be fouled off, and at what speed, and have independent contractors and specialists help clubs decide exactly where netting needs to go.
That way, Wapenski said, she won’t have to walk into Fenway Park or any other ballpark and have to consider where she and her two young daughters can sit safely.
“How do you get kids to be baseball fans?” she said. “They don’t want to watch it on TV. You want to bring them to the stadium, but you can’t sit in the bleachers, they’re not going to pay attention.
“You want to bring them closer, and it’s crazy how you have to debate how close is too close, where can I go with kids where they’ll still be involved with the game and care about it but I still know they’re safe and I don’t have to be on high alert all the time.”