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Look Out for That Foul Ball!

Fan injuries from stray baseballs are a real — and increasing — hazard at baseball parks.

A catch in foul territory, Minor league Baseball, Chasers vs. Redbirds 6-24-17 / Minda Haas Kuhlmann / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Baseball season is in full swing, and fans are heading out to the ballpark to catch a game or two. Enjoying this quintessential summertime experience isn’t something that most of us think of as dangerous, but in recent years increasing numbers of spectators are being hit and badly injured by stray baseballs. A foul ball can move so fast that it’s hard to have time to even think about ducking.

Once hit, it takes a baseball 1 second to travel 130 feet, a distance that’s past the protective netting in many Major League Baseball parks!

There’s also the fact that today’s players are throwing and swinging harder than ever, making a ball hit into the stands even more dangerous now than it would have been years ago. And of course, being the digital society that we are, cell phones play a role in the increased risk of injury: all too often fans are looking down at their phones instead of watching the field of play.

Last year a woman died (paywall) as a result of traumatic brain injuries sustained when she was struck in the head by a ball at Dodger’s Stadium, and earlier this summer a little girl was hit (paywall) by a line drive as she sat in her grandfather’s lap at the Houston Astros’ stadium. She was rushed to the hospital with serious head injuries, including a skull fracture and bleeding in her brain.

And those are only two of the many foul-ball injuries that fans have suffered in the last few years.

Protective Netting Behind Home Plate | Colorcarnival / Shutterstock.com

Many players, and the players’ union, have long urged their teams to install more extensive protective netting, proposing that it run higher and farther toward the outfield. The league hasn’t approved these measures,and owners tend to protest because increased netting might mean decreased visibility for the most loyal baseball fans, including season ticket holders.

During the 2015-2016 season, the Washington Nationals were among 4 teams who extended the protective netting that is hung behind home plate just past the dugouts to shield spectators, and by opening day 2018 all 30 MLB teams had extended their netting past the end of the dugouts. But is it enough? Though ballparks aren’t all the same, it is widely thought that spectator safety would be greatly increased if the netting were to reach all the way to the foul poles. Part of the reason this hasn’t happened is that the MLB is protected by the “Baseball Rule,” a disclaimer printed on the back of every ticket saying that the spectator assumes all of the risks associated with attending a game, and that includes being injured or killed by a stray ball. Even so, now some teams — including The Nationals, who added 315 feet of netting this week during the all-star break — have plans to voluntarily extend their protective netting, making the ballpark a safer place for a family outing. It is sad to see additions that separate the fans from the action, but in this case it is probably the prudent thing to do, to diminish the chance of catastrophic injuries.