Fans at professional baseball games probably anticipate, perhaps even hope, that a foul ball might come their way. Some bring their gloves. But not everyone can judge a drifting pop-up or hot line drive (which, despite its name, will be bending). What’s more, not everyone stays engaged with the action on the field. Therefore, spectators might expect that a certain number of people will get hurt, hopefully not badly.
The specific number was estimated by Bloomberg in 2014 at 1,750 per year. Among the injured this year was a 2-year-old girl in Houston who, according to a family lawyer, suffered a skull fracture, bleeding on the brain and seizures after being struck by a line-drive foul off the bat of Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. The scene, including Almora’s stricken reaction, was a near-replica of a 2017 incident, also involving a young child, during a Twins-Yankees game in New York.
Worse is possible, even with protective measures. In 2018, a 79-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers fan died four days after being struck by a foul over the netting behind home plate. It was only the second such death at a major league ballgame in 50 years, a comfort that disintegrates when one tries to reconcile the words “death” and “ballgame.”
Therefore, fans might expect teams to do what they can to mitigate the dangers of foul balls (and flying baseball bats). And the teams are, incrementally. By 2018, all 30 in the majors had extended nets to the ends of both dugouts as recommended by the league in 2015. Some, including the Twins, have gone beyond that — the foul-line netting at Target Field is now up to 14 feet high and 100 feet past the dugouts — and others recently have laid or instituted plans for protection to or near the foul poles. Twins President Dave St. Peter told an editorial writer that “there’s another move to make” with netting at Target Field; specifics are being explored.
It would be best for all major league teams to install netting all the way to the outfield fences, as is done in Japan. The players’ union wants it, but MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, while acknowledging that the conversation will continue, has emphasized individual stadium geometries, timing and “balance.” St. Peter also said he’d caution against any blanket move.
In a sport as data-heavy as baseball, one would think that determining vulnerabilities could be a matter of statistics, knowable by the public. But as the numbers-oriented website FiveThirtyEight reports, there is no central depository of information about foul balls. The site recently undertook its own analysis and determined that 71.8% of the balls with high exit velocities — 90 miles per hour or higher — veered into unprotected areas between the base paths and the foul poles. (The injuries to the children mentioned above occurred in those zones. Twins communications manager Matt Hodson said the Target Field netting in place since 2018 would have stopped many of the balls tracked in the FiveThirtyEight analysis and would have prevented an injury like that to the girl in Houston.)
Separately, FiveThirtyEight has noted that as players throw and swing harder, there are more foul balls generally.
The cost of netting is not insignificant but also not the Twins’ foremost consideration, St. Peter said. It’s manageable for a league that had revenue of $10.3 billion in 2018. As an example, new 30-foot-high netting between the dugouts at a ballpark in Lee County, Fla., where the Twins play during spring training, cost $49,575, split between the county and team, a county spokesperson told the News-Press in Fort Myers. (One disincentive for change throughout the game: a century-old legal doctrine that discourages lawsuits over fan injuries against teams or the league.)
The other cost, the balance Manfred refers to, has to do with fan interest, especially among existing season-ticket holders, in having unimpeded views. Understandable, but a tolerable compromise, especially since newer netting has finer strands and less color contrast with the field.
As for other sports with errant projectiles? Hockey has long had plexiglass around the rink, and it heightened protection behind the goals after the death of a 13-year-old fan in 2002. Golf has rope lines beyond which its professionals routinely rain pushes, pulls, slices and hooks. Indeed, golf as much as baseball seems like a serious injury waiting to happen, both in landing zones and when a player who’s already hit one errant shot attempts a dramatic recovery through a sea of narrowly parted spectators.
Golf's governing bodies should push the crowds back, and baseball should extend the nets. Think of it not as an affront to tradition but as a better understanding — of physics, risk, and the intangible consequences no equation can capture.