Albert Almora Jr. threw his hands up in despair. The Cubs outfielder had just struck a foul ball that injured a young girl sitting down the third-base line at Minute Maid Park in Houston on Wednesday night.
The girl was taken to the hospital. Later in the game, Almora visited her section and was seen weeping in the arms of a security guard. After the game, Almora remained shaken, and promised to build a lifelong relationship with the injured fan.
Almora did nothing wrong and he reacted in a humane and admirable way. Baseball should find a way to ensure that players have no further cause to feel this particular kind of guilt.
Almora’s line drive provided a reminder of several truths of modern baseball:
• The ball leaves the bat at increasingly frightening speeds. Fans have little chance to react.
• Fans are more distracted than they’ve ever been. A birds-eye view photo of Target Field on the day it opened revealed that 90% of Twins fans were staring at their phone instead of what was happening on the field. Even when their phone doesn’t cause the distraction, the scoreboard or mascot might.
• Baseball knows the danger of balls and bats flying into the stands, which is why the game made the correct decision to expand protective netting to, at a minimum, the far end of every big-league dugout.
In light of the injury in Houston on Wednesday night — and another that occurred in Los Angeles later in the evening — should baseball go farther?
The Twins already have. Twins President Dave St. Peter and senior vice president of operations Matt Hoy said Thursday that Target Field uses more netting than is required by Major League Baseball, and that they will reevaluate the need for more fan protection.
“That’s a question that I think everybody across our industry wrestles with any time you have one of these incidents,” St. Peter said.
“This stirs a level of emotion and debate across the game. I think we tried to find a solution that we think is right for Minnesota, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that today I haven’t thought about going even farther than we already have.”
Hoy said the Twins extend netting a little more than 100 feet from home plate down each foul line. They also have extended their netting at Hammond Stadium, their spring training ballpark in Fort Myers, Fla.
The downside of expanded netting is that fans might feel they paid extra for an obstructed view. Hoy said that concern has been remedied by the specific netting the Twins use — Ultra Cross Knotless Dyneema.
“It’s a different color than traditional netting,” Hoy said. “It’s almost a camouflage type of color, so when you’re sitting in the seating area and looking out through it, it disappears into the green of the grass. And the knots have been removed, so the netting is far less noticeable.”
“As an industry, we’ve gotten a lot smarter about this,” St. Peter said.
There is no one to blame for the girl’s injury. The Astros were in compliance with big-league rules, and every ballpark is different in dimension, including the size and placement of the dugouts.
But where once a traditionalist might have felt justified in fighting against further change, baseball has evolved to the point where this shouldn’t be a difficult conversation. If you can save one kid from serious injury by further extending the netting to any seat that could be in the line of a nasty line drive, why wouldn’t you do so?
Baseball is trying to attract younger fans. Younger fans are less likely to understand the risks of sitting near the field, or of staring at their phones. The penalty for phone obsession or distracted watching should not be a trip to the hospital.
“We haven’t had anything major since we put up the netting,” Hoy said. “We’ve had some people get hit but what’s happened, or at least what we’ve noticed anecdotally, is that the severity of those hit hasn’t been anything like the severity of those who were hit before we extended the netting. And that’s a good thing.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org