In both cases, the fans were sitting close to the field, beyond the zones protected by netting that keeps errant balls, bats and bat fragments from spectators’ bodies. That is true despite all major league teams last season extending their netting to the ends of the home and visitors’ dugouts.
Good for the Nationals, then, for announcing last week that the team will add more protective netting during next month’s All-Star Break. Every other team should do likewise. If they hesitate, the league should require them to upgrade.
The Nationals say their new netting will be more transparent than the material that currently hangs behind home plate. That should allay fears that fans will feel separated from the action. The fears seem overblown in any case, given that the most expensive seats in Nationals Park have been behind netting since the facility’s opening, with no great harm to the fan experience.
Opponents of adding additional protection insist that people should not sit close to the field if they are not going to pay attention or if they are going to bring children. Please. Practically no one pays attention to every detail of every play over the course of an hours-long baseball game. Foul balls can travel so quickly that even attentive fans have practically no time to react.
“There are so many other things going on around the stadium, advertisements, stuff on the video board, the mascots running up and down the seats. There are vendors. There are a lot of other things that are competing for your attention,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle pointed out last week. “It’s unrealistic to say, ‘Oh, you should just pay attention to the game.’ Come on, man. We’ve created this experience for fans, and I think we have an obligation to make sure that they stay safe.”
The Nationals do not plan to extend their netting all the way to the foul poles, as some stadiums in Japan have done. A team spokesperson explained to us that the netting would instead cover nearly as much territory, running from ballgirl to ballgirl, as there is a bend in the seating beyond where the ballgirls sit that presents more of a challenge to protect. The spokesperson also said that the netting could be retracted pregame and at other times for more direct field-to-stands interaction.
The lack of uniformity in park design, with quirks such as that bend in the seating at Nationals Park, has kept Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred from setting a league-wide, foul-pole-to-foul-pole standard. But that’s hardly an insuperable obstacle to reasonable regulation. Unless every team announces adequate plans to boost safety, he should move quickly to require more netting as far as is practicable in every stadium in the country.