Just two years ago, after a child was struck by a foul ball behind the third base dugout at Yankee Stadium, Major League Baseball mandated protective netting that stretched between the far ends of each dugout in all 30 big league parks.
But in the wake of another frightening — and eerily similar — incident Wednesday night in Houston, where a 4-year-old girl was struck and injured by a line drive off the bat of Chicago Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr., people inside and outside the sport are asking whether teams should do more and to what extent fans must take responsibility for the safety of themselves and those around them.
The conversation extended beyond Houston and Chicago players, with virtually everyone saying fans’ safety should be the highest priority but with differing views on how responsibility for it should be shared. The girl injured Wednesday night was seated in a section beyond the visitor’s dugout, which was not protected by netting. The Astros released a statement Wednesday night that the girl was hospitalized, and there have been no updates on her condition since.
Before the 2018 season, all 30 major league ballparks extended netting from home plate to at least the far ends of each dugout, though MLB does not mandate specifics. In general, MLB and its teams are protected by what’s known as the “baseball rule,” a warning that they’re not liable for risks fans accept by attending the game. Continued inaction despite a growing number of injury instances has led some to point the finger of this issue squarely at MLB for what they see as not properly addressing the game’s inherent dangers.
Last August, Jana Brody’s mother, Linda Goldbloom, was sitting in an unprotected loge area at Dodger Stadium behind home plate, just above a section that does have safety netting, and got hit by a foul ball. She died four days later. This year, Almora’s line drive hit the young girl on Brody’s birthday, and she saw it as perhaps a message from her mother to again speak out and demand ballpark safety.
On Thursday, Brody told ESPN she considered MLB’s failure to voluntarily increase netting requirements “unconscionable.”
“Fans are still getting hurt by hard-hit foul balls, and MLB has not increased the netting requirements, even after a foul ball caused a brain hemorrhage and my mom’s death,” she said. “We see not only the fans but the players are traumatized by the horror and damage. . . . At least the players earn millions of dollars and they can afford therapy for their trauma.”
She added: “[The] saddest part will be the injured child’s family will hear from the team, ‘Sorry, no compensation for your trauma’ since the ticket states ‘Enter at your own risk.'"
Players were careful to stress fans’ safety as the highest priority, but some also cited the incident as a sobering reminder of the inherent dangers of seats in proximity to the field.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t do more, but every stadium has already done a lot in the past two years,” said veteran Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta, a former teammate of Almora with the Cubs. “The league has done a good job of extending the netting to where it is now. And that’s saved a lot of injuries, I promise you that. [But] you have to understand if you have small children and you’re that close and you’re not behind a screen, there’s a chance that somebody could get hurt.
“There’s no other way around it. I know it’s fun to do all the things people do in the stands and interact with each other and check your phones. But there’s also a projectile that could be coming at you at any moment.”
Arrieta recalled a game two weeks ago at Chicago’s Wrigley Field where he saw a woman holding an infant in a front-row seat beyond the dugout that was unprotected by netting.
“She’s holding an infant in her arm, as close to the field as we are in the dugout,” he said. “You’re coming to a baseball game where guys are hitting the ball upward of 100 mph on a routine basis, so people need to do a better job of paying attention — especially with kids.”
In a statement issued Thursday morning, MLB said, “Clubs have significantly expanded netting and their inventory of protected seats in recent years. With last night’s event in mind, we will continue our efforts on this important issue.”
Astros pitcher Colin McHugh praised MLB’s recent netting adjustments and believes they have helped lower injury risk. Yet, as a father himself, Wednesday night left him feeling as if the MLB could do more.
“Safety is a paramount for us, both for our safety and the safety of the fans and the families that are coming to watch us,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s obviously up to Major League Baseball to make those adjustments.”
Almora’s teammates, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant and outfielder Jason Heyward, expressed similar sentiments, emphasizing safety. Heyward told the Associated Press he believes baseball players struggle to react to how hard baseballs are hit now, much less fans. To insulate ballparks, Bryant floated a concrete idea to ESPN, saying, “Let’s just put fences up around the whole field.” Asked whether he was serious, Bryant doubled down.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I mean, you could see through these fences. There’s a lot of kids coming to the game. Young kids want to watch us play. The ball is coming hard. With [the] speed of the game, [protection] is needed.”
For his part, Arrieta did not say whether he would be in favor of extending netting from foul pole to foul pole but said it was a “conversation” that needs to take place.
“It’s ridiculous that it takes a 4-year-old girl getting hit in the face for us to have this conversation,” Arrieta said. “It’s just so unfortunate. I have two kids. Almora has kids. Nobody wants to see something like this happen.”
Sheinin reported from Philadelphia.