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MLB Must Mandate Expanded Protective Netting Before It's Too Late

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 9/21/2017 Gabriel Baumgaertner

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When Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier swings the bat, the ball will likely leave his bat at around 88 MPH if he makes contact. He’s hit balls as hard as 110 MPH this season (twice), but ranks 198th among active hitters in average exit velocity. That means, on average, 197 hitters (technically) hit the ball harder than a player with 197 career home runs.

The differences in exit velocity for everyday major league players are negligible. Frazier’s teammate, Aaron Judge, leads the league with a speed of 94.6 MPH. The weakest contact comes from Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton, who averages 84 MPH. Over the span of roughly 400 feet, the ball loses about half of its velocity, which means that, for example, a home run hit at 100 MPH ball won’t decrease to 50 MPH until around the time it lands in the seats some four seconds later. A live baseball is one of sports’ most dangerous flying objects, and potentially fatal when hit on a line.

On Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, a toddler seated along the first base line was struck in the face by a Frazier line drive, halting the game for four minutes and drawing anguished looks from every player on the field. The ball never had time to lose any velocity.

Frazier knelt with his head rested on his bat handle. Outfielder Matt Holliday cried at second base. After the game, Twins second baseman Brian Dozier implored teams to install expanded protective netting. Yankees manager Joe Girardi echoed Dozier’s sentiment, emphasizing that fan safety is paramount to the experience of attending a baseball game. The young girl was taken to the hospital, and the Yankees issued a statement shortly before the end of the game. There have been no updates on the child’s condition since the game ended.

Last season, a young girl was struck in the face by a foul ball from Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis. The moment prompted him to issue the most stinging criticism to date of the lack of safety precautions.

“What year is this? 2016? It’s 2016 and fans keep getting hit by foul balls when you’re supposed to have a net to protect the fans,” Galvis told reporters. “The fans give you the money, so you should protect them, right? We’re worried about speeding up the game. Why don’t you put up a net and protect all the fans?”

The Phillies installed the expanded netting after the incident.

The Phillies' incident conjured memories of a 2008 moment, when a fan at Dodger Stadium had her jaw broken in two places after the barrel of a bat hit her in the face. Or in 2015, when a fan at Fenway Park was hit in the head by a bat and spent close to a week in the hospital in serious condition. A month after that, a fan at Miller Park was stretchered out of a game after being hit in the face by a foul ball. That came one year after an eight-year-old was hit in the head by a line drive at the same stadium, and one year before a fan would be hit in the ear and, like the others, taken off in a stretcher from the Brewers' home park.

There was was that other time in 2015 when a Kyle Schwarber foul ball hit a fan seated on the first base line, play stopped, and the fan was, you guessed it, stretchered out of the stadium. Justin Verlander tweeted his desire for increased protective measures and that these injuries “could be easily avoided.” Major League eventually responded by issuing a recommendation for teams to expand the netting to the steps of each dugout, which curiously coincided with a lawsuit filed by a Manhattan real estate executive who was injured at Yankee Stadium.

Earlier this season, a child seated in a similar area of the stadium was hit in the face by a broken bat at Yankee Stadium. The child sat in the same region of the stadium as the toddler on Wednesday, and was also hospitalized. The incident came two weeks after New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal drafted a bill calling for teams to extend protective netting past the dugouts to the foul poles. When Espinal reemphasized the importance of this after the child was struck, the Mets installed new netting past the dugouts. The Yankees, meanwhile, “continued to discuss the technical parts of installing expanded netting.”

Even after this rash of incidents—some 1,750 fans were injured by foul balls in 2014 according to a Bloomberg analysis—only a third of major league teams have extended the netting to the end of the dugout. Commissioner Rob Manfred insists that he does not want to inhibit the unparalleled access that the fans have to the game. Apparently, that’s enough to avoid installing mandatory safety precautions.

For those who will inevitably argue against the netting and that it’s the fans’ job to “pay attention” when sitting in seats that could endanger their safety, I’d encourage them to read up on Mike Coolbaugh. Coolbaugh was the first base coach for the Tulsa Drillers who once walked to the stands to tell his wife that sitting directly behind first base was too dangerous. He didn’t let his wife and kids sit too close to the game on the foul lines out of fear that they’d be hit by a line drive.

Coolbaugh was killed by one of those line drives in 2007. His death is the reason base coaches are required to wear helmets at all professional levels. If that’s not enough, they can learn the tale of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, who was killed after being hit by an errant slap shot at a Columbus Blue Jackets game in 2002.

The Yankees will return home on Monday and the nets will reach the edges of the dugout the way they did on Wednesday. The toddler may or may not be released from the hospital from by that time. Two-thirds of the league will face a similar reckoning from now until the beginning of next season.

There are enough cases for Major League Baseball to merit mandatory protective netting to, at least, the ends of each dugout. Maybe Wednesday’s incident will be what prompts significant change.

If it doesn’t, then somebody will eventually be killed by a foul ball. And then they’ll have to make a change.

This article was originally published on SI.com

Related slideshow: 2017 MLB season (Provided by photo services)

Aaron Judge (99) of the Yankees celebrates with teammates in the clubhouse after the Yankees defeated the Twins 8-4 in the American League Wild Card game on Oct. 3 in New York City. 2017 MLB Season
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