Ballpark fan safety rises again as an issue

THE CRACK OF THE bat and the screams of fans at major-league ballparks are some of the sounds of summer.

But some of those fans are screaming in pain — the unintended victims of line drives or broken bats that sail into unprotected areas of the park and cause injury.

Hospital visits — and then lawsuits — sometimes follow.

Major League Baseball has taken steps to increase fan protection in recent years. Before the start of the 2016 season, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred sent out a memo to all 30 major league teams urging them to extend the netting behind home plate to the inner side of both dugouts — a distance of 70 feet.

MLB teams complied — including the Milwaukee Brewers. Nine teams took protective netting even farther and added it to the ends of the dugouts.

But soon that may not be good enough in New York City where a city councilman, Rafael L. Espinal Jr., has introduced legislation that would require both New York teams, the Mets and the Yankees, to extend safety netting all the way to the foul poles. That legislation is expected to get a hearing in September.

The Mets earlier this month said they would increase protective netting in mid-season at Citi Field to extend 30-foot-high nets past the dugouts and camera wells and then add 8-foot-high nets farther down the line — tripling the square footage of protective netting. They expect to have it in place by July 14. They will also extend netting at their affiliated minor league ball parks.

Other MLB teams are undoubtedly paying close attention. When fan injuries have led to lawsuits, MLB usually prevails in court on the basis of the fine-print warning on the backs of tickets that give notice of the possible risks of flying bats and balls.

Still, suits get filed. The Milwaukee Brewers were sued last year by a New Jersey woman who was hit in the face during batting practice as she was taking her seat in the second row behind third base. Her attorney’s filing argued the Brewers violated Wisconsin’s so-called “safe place statute” which requires property owners to do everything “reasonably necessary to protect the life, health, safety and welfare” of patrons.

The New York legislation will doubtlessly ramp up that debate over fan safety. And it should. It’s not like fan strikes are rare. Research by Bloomberg News in 2014 said an average of 1,750 baseball fans are injured by foul balls or broken bats each year. No doubt most of those injuries are minor ones, but that’s still a significant number.

And we would hazard a guess that fans have become less attentive than in years past, judging by the televised coverage of games that shows row after row of fans holding up their cellphones to take pictures or text their friends about the great time they’re having. They’re not watching the field.

Yes, there will be fans who object because they want to catch a souvenir, but that’s a small concern compared to tolerating serious injuries.

Baseball needs to take another look at how effective a job they’re doing protecting their fans — including nets all the way to the foul poles. Nobody wants to hear a summer refrain of “Take Me Out At The Ballgame.” — The Journal Times of Racine, June 18

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