Change can be controversial, especially at a baseball temple like Fenway Park. This season, the Red Sox have installed protective netting nearly 10 feet high, extending from dugout to dugout.
With the home opener coming up Monday, the Sox invited season ticket-holders to the park for an early peek to decide for themselves whether Fenway has gone from “Field of Dreams” to “Field of Seams.”
So while the Sox were winning in Cleveland on Opening Day, Paul Malnati, a season ticket-holder since 2002, sat in Field Box 56, Row H, near the visitors’ on-deck circle, and said the netting is “probably long overdue.”
“My overall reaction is positive,” said Malnati, a senior vice president at Trans National. “I’ve sat in these seats when a ball has come screaming through here. It is scary. The safety piece in the end makes it well worth it.”
But he did not like the cable support at the top of the screen, or the new mesh doorway that gives access to the field.
Sean Desmond, a Red Sox season ticket account executive, told him the Red Sox are offering alternate seating — just beyond the dugouts — or a full refund.
Malnati wants neither.
“Does it diminish the whole ballpark experience? I don’t believe so,” he said. “You adjust to it quickly.”
Malnati said the new netting gives him peace of mind to take his grandchildren to Fenway.
“If you take your eye off the game or if you’re talking to a vendor, there’s always that safety fear, and I think this mitigates that,” he said. “It makes it feel very comfortable.”
Last year, there were two horrific accidents at Fenway.
On June 5, Tonya Carpenter, 44, of Paxton, was hit in the head by a piece of broken bat that flew into the second row on the third base side. She required brain surgery and was hospitalized for three weeks.
On July 10, Stephanie Wapenski, 36, of Branford, Conn., needed more that 40 stitches when she was struck by a foul ball during a Yankees game.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred ordered a safety study, and a recommendation was made for all teams to install protective nets in front of any field-level seats within 70 feet of home plate.
More than 30 season ticket-holders have previewed their seats, and none have asked for their money back, according to Desmond. Three have asked about relocation but wanted to at least try the seats under game conditions.
“The biggest concern is the value of their seats is going to decrease,” said Desmond. “There were a lot of concerns that the netting was going to go from the top all the way back, similar to the way it does behind home plate, because that’s the only thing that people are used to. Obviously we’re putting those fears to rest.”
But a catcher diving into the stands for a foul pop, or a player handing a ball to a kid in the front row is now history. Some fans fear player/fan interaction will be diminished, and purists who don’t like looking through a screen won’t be happy with the black netting.
“We respect their opinion,” said Desmond. “We understand that not everyone is going to be like Paul and understand the value in terms of safety. We want people to know that even though there’s a net there, it’s still Red Sox baseball.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell said he understands fan concern.
“There’s going to be two sides to this — people don’t want the netting in front of them because it takes away from the interaction of the game,” said Farrell. “But again, as long as we prioritize safety, that should drive the right decisions.”
Dustin Pedroia agreed.
“Obviously for me, I think if you are going to take your family to a game — and I have little kids — I want protection first,” the second baseman said during spring training. “That’s most important to me. Whether they get a ball or not, to me I’d rather they be safe.”
New Red Sox ace David Price said he is glad that it happened before somebody died or a child was severely injured. But he knows that some fans don’t like looking through netting.
“I don’t think it’s going to ruin the experience,” he said. “The thing I always say about this when the fans say they don’t want the nets is that the most expensive seats are right behind home plate.”
Fans at Fenway are closer than anywhere else in major league baseball. A batted ball can travel up to 120 miles per hour. Price said he got hit by one in Boston in 2010.
“Mike Aviles hit a line drive back at me and it hit me just below my collarbone,” said Price, who was taken to the hospital that day.
“If it was an inch up, it probably breaks my collarbone, and a couple inches up and over, it hits me in the throat, that’s scary. You could see the seams [imprinted] right below my collarbone.”
Pedroia said a ball that took a bad hop broke his eye socket in 2002 while he was playing for Team USA in the Netherlands.
“These balls are coming at you at speeds that are scary, man, so safety is No. 1 one in my world,” he said.
And the Sox, he added, will try to make the netting invisible.
“We’ll do the best we can to try to make it the same interaction with fans and stuff, but safety is first,” he said. “Especially with what happened last year. For me, I just want all the fans protected.”
Before the first game of spring training this year, an usher cleaning off seats in left field at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fla., was hit by a line drive off the bat of Hanley Ramirez.
Buzz Dunham, 80, of Duxbury, briefly lost consciousness. When he awoke, EMTs — plus Ramirez, Farrell, and David Ortiz — were in the stands with him.
“I wanted to make sure he’s OK,” said Ramirez. “We’ve got heart, we’ve got feelings, and we don’t like to see people get hurt.”
Ramirez gave Dunham his batting gloves and Ortiz gave him a bat before he was taken to the hospital with a concussion.
Farrell says fans and ballpark employees need to be alert, especially at Fenway Park.
“When you’re that close, paying attention to the game has got to set a precedent,” said Farrell. “We love the fact that at Fenway, our fans are close to the field — that’s what we feel gives us a competitive advantage. And all I would ask our fans is pay close attention, you may enjoy the game that much more.”San Grossfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org