The Nationals will be the first team to have expanded netting in place since a 4-year-old girl was struck by a foul ball during a game last month between the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros.
“With the amount of incidents you’ve seen happen over the past few years, it seems like, to me, it’s a no-brainer,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said after Thursday’s announcement. “The most expensive seats are already behind nets and no one complains about that.”
The May 29 incident in Houston sparked a leaguewide conversation about protective netting and debates of whether extending it would disrupt the viewing experience for fans. It also grabbed the interest of Nationals owner Mark Lerner. Lerner, according to a person with knowledge of the planning, brought up extended netting immediately after Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. ripped a ball into the stands that sent the 4-year-old to the hospital. Lerner wrote about the netting in a letter to fans Thursday, which also served as the organization’s news release, saying, “I can’t imagine what her parents must have felt in the moment.”
The Nationals are purchasing roughly 315 feet of additional netting.
All of the current netting, which extends just beyond each dugout, will be replaced in July. The Nationals said Thursday that the new netting will offer a “higher degree of transparency” than their existing setup. The Chicago White Sox also announced plans this week to extend the netting at Guaranteed Rate Field. The Detroit Tigers have netting that extends well past the dugout that was installed last season, and the Texas Rangers previously announced that they would have extended netting in their new home park when it opens next season.
The Nationals have joined the movement, but there is still a long way to go. Washington closer Sean Doolittle said Thursday that he would be in favor of Major League Baseball requiring teams to extend toward the foul poles. And there is precedent for MLB to do that. In 2018, before it was required for teams to have netting to the end of each dugout, Commissioner Rob Manfred was ready to mandate the update for each ballpark. Then the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays, the last two holdouts to extend that far, complied, making the mandate unnecessary.
“I don’t care what kind of athlete you think you are. It’s really dangerous. It is. It’s really dangerous,” Doolittle said, referring to those who believe fans should pay attention and protect themselves.
“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,” Doolittle continued. “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.”
Several fans at Nationals Park on Thursday said they supported the move to extended netting and that the netting doesn’t obstruct their view. At around 6 p.m., Aamir Cade was standing along the third base line with his 2-year-old son, Kamari. Cade, who lives and works in Washington, said extended netting will decrease the chance he catches a foul ball for his son. But he doesn’t see that as important.
“The netting makes me feel a lot more comfortable,” Cade said with his son in his arms. “As fast as those things fly, reaction time is next to nothing. It makes me feel a lot more safe knowing they’re taking precautions so we can focus on the game and the fun.”
There is also a slight concern of players’ ability to interact with fans being decreased because of the increased netting. But the Nationals will be able to raise their nets by the dugouts and Doolittle said players will make extra effort in the new circumstances.
Peatrice Vicks, of Charlotte, said she prefers to sit in areas behind netting. So does Patrick Healey, who lives in Chesapeake Beach, Md. Healey said he has been at baseball games in which a foul ball flew toward him and another fan, seated ahead, deflected it.
And the baseball “still hurts” — even when deflected.
“When you watch a little girl get hit in the head, put the nets up,” Healey said. “I don’t think it interferes with what you’re watching. It’s not about trying to be overly cautious. It’s about being safe.”
Zimmerman to start rehab
Zimmerman will begin a rehab assignment with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators on Friday, close to two months after he went to the 10-day disabled list with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
Zimmerman has been running the bases at Nationals Park for a few days, and continued to do so before a delayed start against the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday. The stated plan, for the past few weeks, was to send Zimmerman on an assignment once he was comfortable running. Rounding the bases was the last hurdle he had to clear. Zimmerman was hitting .213 in 86 plate appearances before the injury and, given his health setbacks in recent seasons, is again eager to get back to the field.
When he is ready, the Nationals will have a roster decision to make to clear space for him. The logical move would be to option infielder Adrian Sanchez back to Harrisburg, giving Martinez a catcher, power-hitting pinch-hitter, utility infielder and two outfielders on his bench.
“It’s more just being able to run the bases, you know, I don’t really steal bases or do much anyway, but if you’re going to be out there playing you have to be able to at least score on a normal base hit if you’re on second, or go first to third,” Zimmerman said Thursday. "You might not have to be 100 percent on all of that, but you have to be able to do normal baseball activities or you’re not really helping the team, I guess.”
Read more on the Nationals: