PLAY STOPPED at Yankee Stadium for four excruciating minutes Wednesday. Slugger Todd Frazier had just rocketed a 105-mph foul ball into the stands, where it struck a young girl in the head. Mr. Frazier knelt down, a pained look on his face. Some of the other men on the field shed tears. The girl was rushed to the hospital, where her father later told reporters that she is doing "all right" — but that it is still unclear whether she will need surgery.
Player after player has since insisted that stadiums need more netting to protect fans from incoming foul balls. Anyone who has sat near a major league dugout knows how tantalizingly — and alarmingly — close those seats are to the action. Balls whizzing toward the crowd at 100-plus mph leave close-in spectators practically no time to react.
We wish Wednesday's story were unique, but it is far from the first time that an errant baseball has struck a spectator. Fans have lost vision, required reconstructive surgery, endured shattered skulls, even been seriously wounded by flying bat fragments. A 2014 Bloomberg statistical analysis found that 1,750 spectators are hurt each year by flying balls and bat fragments. Not every incident is as horrifying as Wednesday's. Some no doubt occur because people lean in to catch balls coming their way. But a large number of injuries would nevertheless be prevented if major league ballparks installed more extensive netting.
The reaction among some is to blame the injured, arguing that they should have been paying more attention, or to blame those around the victims, insisting that it is irresponsible to bring children to dangerous areas of the park. But even the most conscientious of baseball fans might fail to react in time — either to protect their loved ones or themselves. The balls move very quickly. And it is just reality that, over the course of a three-and-a-half-hour game, even the most attentive fan may look away once or twice.
The question would be different if netting seriously detracted from the fan experience. But anyone who has been lucky enough to score seats behind the fine mesh netting currently in major league stadiums — made of fibers only 1.2 millimeters thick — knows otherwise. Some stadiums even have netting that can be retracted for tossing baseballs, T-shirts and other items into the stands when no one is batting.
Major League Baseball in 2015 issued a recommendation that teams maintain netting behind home plate, extending to where each dugout begins. Some stadiums — including Nationals Park — extended their netting further, to the end of each dugout. Every team should provide at least that much coverage. But even netting protecting the rows above the dugouts might not have helped last Wednesday night. The girl was sitting behind the third base line, past the dugout.
MLB should look to stadiums in Japan, where netting often reaches from foul pole to foul pole. And the next time the organization issues an obvious safety finding, it should come in the form of a requirement, not a mere recommendation.
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