A sure-handed dad snatching a foul ball out of the air and handing the souvenir to an excited son or daughter has been a familiar, feel-good sight for decades in Major League Baseball stadiums.
But a recent rash of horrific injuries suffered by fans hit by scorching line drives is forcing MLB teams like the Nationals to choose between baseball tradition and the health and well-being of paying customers — and tradition is losing.
The Nationals extended protective netting this week from the dugouts to the foul poles in left and right fields, putting a barrier between fans in the premium seats and the hard-hit foul balls rocketing into the stands. Some customers have praised the club’s action as a necessary, potentially life-saving measure, while others have decried what they see as the latest example of a “nanny-state” approach to life creeping into all aspects of American culture.
Longtime baseball fans Barry and Jeannette Hall — he’s 84 and she’s 76 — said the netting is going to take some fun out of the game.
“We sit right by the gate that everything goes through, where the president’s race is and the police are there and security goes through the gate,” Barry Hall said. “And the netting slows it down. It’s going to drive away people that sit there, because they’ve got a silly net that goes up and down blocking what I’m watching.”
The Halls seemed, though, to be in the minority among the fans on hand Wednesday afternoon for the Nationals’ 3-2 win over the Colorado Rockies in the first game of a doubleheader — and just the stadium’s second game with the extended netting.
Brad Cameron, a 33-year-old Frederick, Maryland, native, cheered the league’s moves to make a trip to the ballpark safer.
“It speaks volumes of them taking consideration of the fans and the people who are coming out to their ballparks,” Cameron said. “You know, even watching games on TV, you see hard liners that are, that are ripped down left and down the third and first baseline and you can’t help but kind of kind of turn away from the TV cause you know, it’s coming in hot — and if your head’s not on a swivel, there’s the potential for injury.”
Cameron said complaints about the nets are overblown.
“You have foul balls that aren’t liners that still go into the stands. You have home runs that still go into the stands,” he said. “You don’t have to always walk away with a souvenir.”
The consensus among players and coaches is that something had to be done.
“I think it is a good thing,” Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black said. “From what I have been told by fans it does not detract from their in-game experience.”
Nationals manager Dave Martinez agreed.
“I think it is a great idea, I really do, especially with younger kids in the stands,” Martinez said. “You are supposed to come to the ballgame and have fun and I think keeping fans from being injured and let them have fun is appropriate.”
Nationals catcher Yan Gomes pointed out that the game has changed.
“Guys are throwing harder, balls are coming harder off the bat,” Gomes said. “Guys will hit it down the line and fans are not paying attention … If it takes away from any kind of fan experience, it is for the safety of the kids.”
Mark W. Lerner, principal owner and vice-chairman of the Nationals, explained the team’s decision in a letter published online in June.
“I could not help but become emotional … watching the Astros-Cubs game when a four-year-old little girl was hit by a line drive. I can’t imagine what her parents must have felt in that moment,” Lerner wrote. “And to see the raw emotion and concern from Albert Almora Jr. was heartbreaking.”
The girl hit by Almora’s line drive in Houston on May 29 was on her way to recovery, according to reports that came out immediately after. That wasn’t the case for 93-year-old Linda Goldbloom, who died four days after being struck by a foul ball Aug. 25, 2018, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles — baseball’s first foul ball fatality in almost half a century.
Still, hundreds of fans are struck each season — some critically. And MLB warns customers about the dangers with a disclaimer printed on the back of every ticket.
Even Barry Hall, a Nationals season ticket holder since 2009, said he understands why some fans want the netting.
“Players are about twice the size they used to be. They’re strong. They swing harder,” he said. “And the ball is coming quick. I mean it’s just unbelievable how fast the ball gets 200 feet away.”
But like a lot of purists, he doesn’t like the idea of tinkering with the game, or the fan experience.
“It is still the same game it has been for so many years, we don’t need the nets.”