SportsBiz: The net gain of baseball

For the Colorado Rockies' 2017 season, bring a glove and watch every pitch, because foul balls are forever

My moment of Coors Field glory happens during the summer of 2006.

I’m sitting in section 136, 20-some rows up from the visiting team’s dugout. Outfielder Brad Hawpe (remember him?) digs in at the plate and launches a missile. I barely have time to register the trajectory before I shoot up from the seat and stretch my Mizuno-gloved left hand high over my head. A sudden “thwack” propels the glove backward. I yank it down and there, nestled like a bird’s egg, is the baseball. The crowd cheers, the guy behind me pats me on the back, the usher does the two-thumbs-up to signal all is well. I hand the ball to a young boy, earning chivalry points galore.

And the game goes on.

Some variation of this episode happens all the time at Major League Baseball games. In most cases, the ball bounces harmlessly among seats until some quick-fingered fan collects the thing, shares a high-five and pockets a souvenir.

Except when it doesn’t.

Sometimes, foul balls and spears of broken bats collide with unsuspecting fans. In the blink of an eye, foreheads are gashed, cheekbones are fractured, blood spills from faces and an evening at the ballpark transforms into a nightmare. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often. A Bloomberg News analysis found roughly 1,750 fans are injured annually in MLB ballparks, compared with about 74 million who attend games. But when it does happen the carnage can be horrific.

In June 2015, a 44-year-old Red Sox fan, Tonya Carpenter, suffered life-threatening injuries when she was struck in the head by a flying bat at Boston’s Fenway Park.

Her injury seemed to galvanize attention to the issue of fan safety, prompting newfound introspection by the baseball community. Prior to the following season, league commissioner Rob Mandel recommended teams extend protective netting beyond the immediate backstop area to the inner edge of dugouts.

Every MLB team has complied.

(The Colorado Rockies had already extended netting at Coors Field prior to Mandel’s recommendation.)

Opponents argue baseball needs to do more. In 2015 a longtime Oakland Athletics fan, Gail Payne, sued MLB in an attempt to require the league to insist on protective netting that extends to outfield fences. Payne’s lawsuit was one of many that have been filed against baseball and its teams over fan safety.

The majority have been unsuccessful, derailed by a legal concept known as the assumption of risk doctrine. This concept is widely applied in liability disputes, but particularly relevant in baseball, where a derivation known as “the baseball rule” holds that fans who enter a ballpark willfully accept risk. A U.S. judge dismissed Payne’s lawsuit last November.  

Legalities aside, there are differences of opinion about whether teams should extend netting at all. Opponents, including novelist and Red Sox fan Stephen King, complain the practice erodes the cherished intimacy between players and fans. “That net feels like paying good money to sit in a cage,” King wrote last summer.

It’s also apparent that the fan experience is different today, with smartphones and other distractions deflecting attention and potentially elevating injury risk. There are economic considerations, too. The more vulnerable seats – in low-level sections flanked by dugouts and outfield fences – fetch higher prices. Teams worry big-spending fans will be turned off if netting encroaches on their view.

For their part, players ritually plead for more protection. Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez told the Colorado Springs Gazette last year he says a silent prayer before each game, pleading to a higher authority than no fans are hurt during the game. Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis angrily demanded more netting in the ballpark after a foul ball from his bat stuck a young girl in the face during a game last August at Citizens Bank Park.

Fan sentiment varies. Forty-four percent of fans responding to an informal 2015 poll published by the Rockies-themed website opposed any extension of netting. But a third said it should reach the edge of dugouts, and 11 percent favored extending nets all the way to the outfield fences.

Bottom line: There’s probably no solution that will make everybody happy. But if you’re a baseball fan, here’s some free advice. Bring a glove to the game, watch every pitch, and keep your cell phone in your pocket. Because Brad Hawpe may be retired.

But foul balls are forever.

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