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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?