Major League Opening Day, like baseball itself, is part of American identity. This year, the experience for fans sitting closest to the field will be different. For the first time, in each Major League park, protective netting will extend to the end of the dugouts, shielding more fans from foul balls than in the past.
The netting offers protection to the ticket holders that the team has deemed most valuable — at least, those not perched aloft in luxury boxes. Teams have moved the best seats closer to the field and provided unique perks to the fans sitting in them to increase revenue and confer more status on those who sit there. This has resulted in teams attracting people who are not die-hard fans. They come to the game as a corporate perk, or to woo clients, rarely armed with a baseball glove to catch a foul ball.
These new and more casual fans, seeking the status-boost of expensive seats, have been a boon for owners. But they — and the nets required to protect them — are also part of broader trends in the United States happening outside the ballpark, where a growing wealth disparity belies notions of equality.
There was a time when America’s national pastime seemed to reflect America’s promise. A journalist summarized this viewpoint in 1911, saying that baseball games provided a “spirit of true democracy broad enough to include the heads of the nation and the nation’s humblest citizen, a great, leveling, cosmopolitan force where differences of race and station vanish away.” Such pronouncements about baseball stadiums as democratic spaces, ones where all fans were equal, were never true. But this perception passed muster because at the time, class divisions in the park were limited.
In the smaller parks that teams used at the beginning of the 20th century, fans often sat close to the playing field, fostering an intimate experience. But some of the danger of sitting close to the field was mitigated because Major League teams drew fewer fans 100 years ago than they do today. The fans who did come to games were likely to be die-hards, interested in playing close attention to the game and not surprised by foul balls.
Die-hard fans had a chance to grab the best seats at the time because front-row tickets did not cost all that much more than bleacher seats. For example, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia in 1915, bleacher seats cost a quarter (roughly $6 in today’s dollars) and lower-level grandstand seats cost $1 (roughly $24 in today’s dollars). Although there were class divisions within the park, they were less severe than they are today.
Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, however, a number of Major League teams moved into multipurpose facilities designed to host both baseball and football. In order to fit a baseball diamond and a rectangular football field into the same facility, the seats closest to the playing field had to be pulled farther away than they had been at older parks. There was no need for more netting because the best seats were not that close to the field.
These stadiums, however — perhaps most notably the Houston Astrodome, which introduced luxury skyboxes and a 474-foot scoreboard to the world — led to increasing divergence between the fan experience for someone with means to splurge for a top ticket and someone stuck in the cheap seats. The gap between a skybox and a $1.50 seat was vast and unmistakable.
A new wave of more intimate retro-inspired ballparks swept through Major League Baseball after the opening of Camden Yards in Baltimore in 1992. These parks, all designed exclusively as baseball venues, allowed fans to again sit closer to the action.
Yet despite being modeled on parks with minimal divisions between the most expensive and cheapest seats, facilities like Camden Yards brought with them the inequality nurtured at the massive stadiums of midcentury. In fact, they fostered even greater divisions than their multisport predecessors. The cheap seats at these new parks were much farther from the action than they had been in early-20th-century parks, because architects were determined to avoid seats with views obstructed by support pillars.
These parks attracted new fans drawn to the novelty of a fancy facility, often marketed as clean and family-friendly, and the bevy of distractions teams created to entertain fans who did not live and die with every pitch. They include everything from barbecue pits to playgrounds for bored children to the now-defunct butcher shop at the new Yankee Stadium. The stadiums also include giant videoboards, drawing fan attention away from the field. The best seats even have exclusive amenities — from better food to waiter service — that aim to attract the casual fan or business executive seeking status or wining and dining clients.
Close seats and constant distraction put new fans and business tycoons in danger, contributing to injuries caused by foul balls. In the last few years, footage of fans being struck and severely injured by foul balls resulted in calls, including from players, for increased protection. The outcry prompted teams to erect larger protective nets.
But expanded netting doesn’t just signal a desire to protect fans, but to protect the growing divide at the ballpark — which, in turn, reflects the growing divide in American society.
Gone from the park are references to a democracy based on equality, replaced instead with a democracy based on wealth — something as true outside the ballpark as inside it. Americans at the ballpark, like Americans in broader society, have equal access only to what they can pay for. While everyone in the stadium watches the game, fans are only on equal terms with those who can pay as much as they do. And while that inequality may not have the same consequences as similar inequities in health care, education and criminal justice, it does suggest how deep the wealth divide extends — right into the heart of America’s pastime.