Calls for more protective netting at Major League Baseball ballparks are increasing after a 4-year-old girl was struck by a foul ball and hospitalized at Houston’s Minute Maid Park during a game between the Cubs and Astros on May 29. Tuesday evening, however, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in Seattle that structural issues would make it difficult for teams to make changes and extend the netting during the season.
“Look, I think it is important that we continue to focus on fan safety,” Manfred said, noting that he expects the issue to be discussed both now and in the offseason. “If that means that the netting has to go beyond the dugouts, so be it. Each ballpark is different. The reason I hesitate with ‘beyond the dugout,’ I mean, a lot of clubs are beyond the dugout already. But there is a balance here. We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don’t want to sit behind nets. I think that we have struck the balance in favor of fan safety so far, and I think we will continue to do that going forward.”
The balance may need to be reconsidered, however. Since 2017, there have been several other alarming incidents in which fans have been struck by foul balls lined into seats not protected by netting. In 2017, a girl was struck by a foul ball at Yankee Stadium and in August 2018, 79-year-old Linda Goldbloom died four days after being rushed to the hospital following a similar incident at Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium.
Major League Baseball announced that all franchises must extend protective netting at least as far as the dugouts for the 2018 season. The question now is whether that provides a reasonable level of protection given these incidents. Although the Astros complied and installed nets extending over the dugouts in 2017, the girl’s seating area, Section 111, is the first section not protected by netting. The incident illustrates just how little time anyone has to react to an incoming missile, such as the one hit by Almora.
In this most recent instance, the ball left Almora’s bat at 106.3 mph and covered a distance of 158 feet, per MLB’s data. The ball took just 1.2 seconds to reach the seats, according to Dr. John Eric Goff, professor of physics at the University of Lynchburg and author of “Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports.”
To put that reaction time in perspective, if you were driving a car traveling at 55 mph, you would have just 1.2 seconds to swerve if an object fell off the back of a truck 97 feet in front of you. But that’s if the driver is paying rapt attention. In 2011, Consumer Reports found that a distraction like texting while driving doubles reaction times. Given that a fan may not be focused on every batted ball, they may have only 0.6 seconds to get out of the way of a 106-mph line drive. That’s particularly concerning in a year in which average exit velocities are the highest they’ve been since the league started tracking how fast balls flew from the point of contact.
“If your eyes are away from home plate and you hear the crack of that bat — sound is going to reach you later than the light will — before you know it there’s a ball coming at you,” Goff said. “So a person might have a great reaction time but, if they’re not watching, it’s not going to help them much.”
Assuming a fan is giving undivided attention to the game, the above graphic, which uses the same seven-degree launch angle as Almora’s line drive, illustrates that the fan would have between 1 and 1.5 seconds to dodge such a foul ball. That’s a lot to ask of anyone — particularly when distracted. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, trained pilots take 1.1 seconds to become aware that a small or high-speed object could pose a serious threat in the air and then another 0.4 seconds to take corrective action. And that’s assuming they immediately recognize the threat.
In addition to the game itself, baseball fans are also faced with advertisement signage, scoreboard displays, vendors in the aisles, mascots, social interactions and a number of other stimuli during live game action. It’s reasonable to assume fans need more time than a trained pilot to react to an incoming threat, raising the question of whether those prone to such distractions — children, for instance — are at serious risk when seated in unprotected areas close to the field.
Whether the expectation is reasonable is a key from a legal perspective. In the 2010 case “Edward C. v. City of Albuquerque,” the Supreme Court of New Mexico found a fan “must exercise ordinary care to protect himself or herself from the inherent risk of being hit by a projectile that leaves the field of play and the owner/occupant must exercise ordinary care not to increase that inherent risk.” Does “ordinary care” cover people who must dodge incoming balls at 100 mph in a second and a half or less when sitting in exposed seating areas just beyond the edge of the netting? As the graphic illustrates, that potential danger exists for anyone in those sections.
Goldbloom’s death shows the highest stakes in this conversation. Goff estimates the kinetic energy, or energy that results via any form of motion, from a 100-mph line drive to be about 145 joules. That kinetic energy is roughly equal to the impact of a 10-pound weight dropped on you from nearly 11 feet above your head.
The threat is not a rare one, either: There were at least 1,020 line-drive foul balls with exit velocities of 100 mph or greater through June 3. Not all of those found their way to the seats, but that number represents only what we can see from the data publicly available. In 2015, Major League Baseball introduced a tracking system for batted balls, Statcast, that follows batted balls and records the type of hit (groundball, line drive, flyball, etc.) and landing spot. But, according to a person familiar with MLB’s use of Statcast, the system was designed to maximize tracking of pitched and batted balls in the field of play. Foul balls are not always recorded, meaning while we can see a minimum of more than 1,000 instances of foul-ball line drives traveling over 100 mph, the total number is probably higher.
While Manfred and MLB’s teams wrestle with the balance of protective netting, any fan sitting just beyond its edge should be well aware that danger could be a mere second away.