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MLB needs to extend the netting at fields again

Last night’s foul ball incident is preventable and inexcusable

Albert Almora Jr is visibly distraught after hitting a foul ball that injured a child in Houston on Wednesday
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things I love most about baseball is the way it can fade into the background. I can write while watching a game, or head out with friends and track a couple of games at once. Even in the bleachers, hanging out with friends, we can catch up on life as the game plays out in all of its beauty before us.

This feature of baseball, the reason it is accurately called the nation’s pastime, is what made Wednesday’s foul ball incident so striking from my perspective.

I watch or listen to somewhere close to 95 percent of Cubs games. Rarely during the regular season I’ll have a conflict that keeps me from watching a game, but even then I’m usually paying attention somehow. Last night was one of those rare occasions. I was at Gallagher Way watching The Breakfast Club on the big screen. Early in the game one of the screens facing Gallagher Way in Brickhouse Tavern changed to the Cubs game and was visible. It was perfect. I was enjoying the movie and sort of periodically glancing over at the much smaller screen to keep an eye on the game, when I saw Albert Almora Jr. with his arms wrapped around his head in a way that immediately signaled something devastating had happened. The scene evolved, with no context or sound, to scenes of horrified players, many squatting at their base, with somber expressions on their faces. I quickly got a pit in my stomach I rarely associate with baseball games.

In fact, I only associate that particular feeling with severe injuries at baseball games. It’s distinct from the feeling of an impending loss, or an error. It’s almost nauseating, a feeling of “Dear God, I hope that human being is okay, please let them be okay.” In this instance, however, I lacked the context for who I wanted to be okay, so I turned to Twitter to find this:

This is not the first time a fan has been hit by a ball, it wasn’t even the only time last night. This is not the first time a child has been hit with a foul ball. While thankfully local Houston news is reporting that this child is okay, it is not the first time foul balls hit into the stands have caused terrible, and sometimes fatal, injuries.

Every person who loves baseball is praying for the health of this small child, but we can do much more than thoughts and prayers. We can demand that MLB extend the protective netting at MLB parks again. It should go foul pole to foul pole as quickly as possible. TMZ is reporting that MLB is open to considering changes, and if enough of us demand it, team owners and the league will have to listen.

The netting has been extended multiple times in the last decade. Here is an article from 2015 where the Commissioner “encouraged” teams to extend the nets to the edge of the dugout. We revisited this issue and the nets were extended at all 30 ballparks in 2018 after a two-year-old girl was hit in the face by a foul ball traveling 105 MPH at Yankee Stadium.

Fans who oppose netting often allude to some notion of proximity to the ballpark that would be lost with a net. The previous extensions of the netting and Wrigley Field’s ability to continue to sell lower bowl seats on the infield at exorbitant rates suggests to me that the views from those seats are still just fine. Another common argument is that people close to the field should pay attention, or maybe children just shouldn’t be allowed to sit so close to the field. Jeff Passan of ESPN covered these arguments in a brilliant piece this morning:

While the exit velocity on the swing was not made public, Statcast reported that it traveled 160 feet in 1.2 seconds, meaning it was going at least 90 mph. The pall it cast over the stadium was immediate.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the vast majority of fans do not have the ability to react to a foul ball that travels 160 feet in 1.2 seconds. I know I don’t, and I’m not sure I know anyone who does. Passan further reported that Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber all agree the netting should be extended:

“Let’s just put fences up around the whole field,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant told ESPN. “I mean, it’s so sad when you see stuff like that happen.

”There’s a lot of kids coming to the games -- young kids who want to watch us play,” Bryant continued. “And the balls come in hard. I mean, the speed of the game is quick, and I think any safety measure we can take to make sure that the fans are safe, we should do it.”

Bryant wasn’t the only one calling for it. Outfielders Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber supported the idea. Nothing terrifies players more than a hard-hit foul ball into the stands. They understand that it’s not about people focusing on their phones, not about preventing kids from partaking in one of baseball’s great joys and sitting close to the field -- not about any of the talking points the anti-net crowd bleats every time this happens.

The players recognize the impossibility of fans defending themselves from foul balls headed at them at upwards of 90 mph. The vast majority of fans recognize it as well. That has to be more important than a small contingent of fans who are willing to sacrifice the health of others for their own nostalgia.

I never want to see another scene like the one that unfolded at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday night, particularly when there is a readily available way to prevent it. Major League Baseball should mandate extended netting from foul pole to foul pole as quickly as it can possibly be done.