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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 16: A child’s injury spurs a belated adoption of expanded protective netting

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

On September 20, during the Minnesota Twins-New York Yankees game at Yankee Stadium, a baby girl, just shy of her second birthday, was severely injured after a foul ball flew off the bat of Todd Frazier and into the stands along the third base line where she was sitting. The girl suffered multiple facial fractures and had bleeding on the brain. The stitches from the baseball left a mark on her forehead and her eyes were swollen shut due to the impact. She spent five days in the hospital. As of early October, when her father spoke the press, it was not yet known if she would need facial reconstructive surgery or if her vision would be permanently affected.

In some parks that ball would have been stopped because of netting down the baselines. There was no netting that far down the line in Yankee Stadium, however, because the Yankees had not committed to expanding it like other teams had. They didn’t because Major League Baseball did not require them to despite the league being well aware that extending the netting was the prudent thing to do.

In December of 2015 Major League Baseball released a recommendation — not a mandate, just a suggestion — that teams provide expanded netting. Teams were “encouraged” to shield the seats between the near ends of both dugouts (i.e., the ends of the dugouts located closest to home plate) and within 70 feet of home plate with protective netting or other safety materials of the clubs’ choice. At the same time, they launched “fan education” guidelines about where to sit and whether or not they’ll be protected.

While these recommendations were better than nothing, they also seemed far more geared toward diminishing the liability of the league and its clubs than actively protecting fans from screaming projectiles. The stuff about fan education was obviously a creature of an assumption-of-the-risk calculus. It was an implicit disclaimer of the “don’t say we didn’t warn you” variety and, as such, was aimed more at shielding baseball from liability over batted ball or bat-shard injuries than at directly shielding fans from such injuries. I mean, ask yourself: what level of “education” would’ve been useful for a 23-month-old baby girl? What steps did the league or the Yankees take to prevent the parents of a baby from sitting in those expensive seats?

None, of course. Major League Baseball and most of its clubs have been in denial about how dangerous it is in unprotected seats that are so close to the action and the league is loathe to take any real ownership over the situation. Meanwhile the league and the clubs themselves actively encourage fans to use their smart phones and watch the scoreboard and ads and various other things during games, despite the fact that the closest seats are far closer to the action than they used to be in the old ballparks and the hitter hit the ball far harder than they used to.

In the wake of the league’s recommendations a few teams extended their netting but most did not. At the time I and many others said that it would take someone being seriously injured or possibly even killed before teams took action, much like the way the NHL did not require netting until a girl was killed by a puck in Columbus, Ohio back in 2002. It turned out we were right. After the girl in Yankee Stadium was hospitalized, clubs quickly began to extend their protective netting.

In the days following the girl’s injuries in Yankee Stadium, the Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners all announced that they would extend their netting. After them came the Yankees — why they weren’t first I have no idea — then the Brewers, Indians and Twins followed suit (this was the Twins’ second expansion, having made a more modest expansion in 2015). They joined the Texas Rangers, the Washington Nationals, the Kansas City Royals, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Houston Astros, the Atlanta Braves the New York Mets, which did so before the Yankee Stadium incident.

That makes 16 teams with expanded netting and 14 without. To the 14 we ask: what are you waiting for?

 

How long do you stay a fan of a team that left town?

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File this under “not a really deep thought, but there isn’t much going on this morning, so why not?”

I was catching up with the latest, and final, season of “The Americans” over the weekend. I will give no spoilers and ask that you do the same, but I want to talk about something that came up in the second episode.

The episode takes place in October 1987 and a character is listening to a Twins playoff game on the radio. He later talks about baseball and the Twins with some other characters. The context is not important, but the guy — probably in his mid-late 40s, living in the Washington D.C. area — makes a point to say that he has been a Twins fan since the beginning, and then says he was, in fact, a fan of the franchise back when they were still the Washington Senators.

In case you are unaware, the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota following the 1960 season and became the Twins. At the same time an expansion team, also called the Senators, was placed in D.C. to replace them. That franchise would stay in D.C. for 11 seasons before moving to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers.

In light if that, am I the only one who has a hard time buying that such a man actually existed? How would the character, who was a kid when the original Senators moved, be a Twins fan some 26 years later?

There were relatively few televised baseball games back then. Just a game of the week and some out of town coverage of local teams. There was obviously no internet. Outside of the 1965 World Series, it’d be a shock if more than a couple of Twins games were broadcast to the D.C. area during the rest of the guy’s childhood. Maybe he kept up with the Senators players like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison via box scores, baseball cards and The Sporting News, but I couldn’t imagine a D.C. guy raised on the Senators keeping up with the Twins through the 1970s and 1980s. Would he not become a new Senators fan or, eventually, a Rangers fan? Maybe, like so many people on the D.C. area, he picked up the Orioles as his team due to their 1960s-70s dominance? Any number of things could happen, but I’m struggling to imagine the existence of a Senators guy who becomes a hardcore Twins fans up to and including 1987.

All of that got me thinking about other relocated teams.

The Dodgers are the most famous example, of course, with the narrative being that Dodgers fans in Brooklyn felt betrayed by Walter O’Malley and thus turned their back on the club, later adopting the Mets as their rooting interest. The betrayal narrative is less pronounced with the Giants, but that’s the same general story with them too. I mean, there’s a reason the Mets picked orange and blue as their colors. They wanted to, and largely did, co-opt the old NL New York fans.

I’m sure a lot more Dodgers and Giants fans continued to follow their teams in California than would let on, given that many of the same players starred out there in the ensuing years, but that likely died out as those players retired. Bob Aspromonte was the last Brooklyn Dodger to play in the bigs, retiring after the 1971 season. Willie Mays played through 1973. I assume NL fans in New York kept some nice thoughts for them — particularly because the Mets picked both of them up for the tail end of their careers — but I can’t see those guys rooting for, say, Steve Garvey and John Montefusco in 1979.

Others:

  • There likely aren’t many St. Louis Browns fans left — they last played in Missouri 65 years ago — but even if the ones they had in 1953 felt like rooting for the Cardinals was impossible, I bet most of their kids and grandkids became Cards fans;
  • The A’s fans in Philly — and later Kansas City — probably have a similar story. I mean, there’s a reason that franchise skipped town twice, so to expect undying love over the decades, with the Phillies and Royals around, is a bit much. The Philadelphia A’s glory years were like 90s years ago now anyway, and all of those fans are dead. The A’s modern glory years have all come in Oakland. No one in Philadelphia or Kansas City is looking to the California with an aching in their heart;
  • I could imagine someone’s grandfather in Milwaukee still thinking that the Braves are his team, but not many other people. The Braves won a World Series and two pennants in Milwaukee, but that was an awful long time ago and they moved to Atlanta before the A’s moved to Oakland. Don’t even get me started about Boston Braves fans. They all have to either be dead or have long since moved on. Following a team to a new city is a big ask, but following them to two new cities over 66 years seems pathological. UPDATE: OK, there are some pathological people out there.
  • I have some Nationals fan friends and they tell me that there is a small, weird contingent of Expos fans who root for Washington now. I get that since it wasn’t terribly long ago, but was Brad Wilkerson really a good enough reason to carry a torch? I’d like to talk to some of those people and ask them about their value system;
  • The only other team to move was the Seattle Pilots. They played one season in Seattle and no one would remember that if it wasn’t for Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four.” If you find someone claiming to be a Pilots fan in Seattle, you’ve found yourself a hipster peddling revisionist b.s.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words wasted on a couple of lines from a TV show, but as always, your thoughts are appreciated.