On Monday, the Villanova Wildcats won the NCAA Championship and celebrated by cutting down the nets from the hoops, following a long-standing college basketball tradition.
At ballparks across the Major Leagues, netting is being treated quite differently as the 2016 Major League season starts.
This past offseason, Commissioner Rob Manfred encouraged teams to expand their safety netting further down each foul line to better adhere to the needs of the fans. Both scientific studies and common sense alike suggest that extending the netting further down the first and third base sides would increase fan safety significantly.
In 2015, there were several instances across Major League Baseball involving fans getting injured as a result of foul balls, as well as broken or mishandled bats flying into the stands. Some were even so serious that the victims had to be carried out of the stadium on stretchers and hospitalized as a result. Lawsuits came of these innocent accidents, and for a variety of reasons, Manfred has recommended that teams increase the areas of netting coverage to or beyond the dugouts.
I respect and even admire the steps that the MLB is taking to protect their fans and provide a safe and comfortable environment to take in their product. Spectators should feel secure and at ease when watching a baseball game. However, I do not like the measures that are now being implemented because I think they detract from the essence of the sport.
Baseball has long been a sport conducive to player-fan interaction, predicated on the intimate feeling of being so close to the action. Part of its charm is being able to get an autograph from your favorite player, catch a foul ball hit by one the world’s most iconic athletes or watch a fielder make a play right in front of you.
With nets, not only is the view of the game impaired, but the experience and atmosphere is not the same.
Moreover, ever since the earliest days of baseball, foul balls and broken bats have been a part of the experience. For them to occasionally leave the field of play has been natural and a real part of the game.
Is this dangerous? Sure. But the true danger comes when fans are inattentive or otherwise not alert.
This is not to say the victim is necessarily to blame. There are times when reacting to or catching or dodging an incoming ball or bat can be next to impossible. At the same time, if someone is paying attention to the game, he or she usually has the time to do something if a ball or bat coming his or her way, but if he or she is on the phone or not watching what he or she actually came to the park to see – i.e., the game itself – then he or she puts him or herself in harm’s way. When someone goes to a game, he or she needs to realize what could happen, and take into account where he or she is sitting in relation to the field and how that relates to his or her safety.
Ultimately, safety is about understanding the reality of the situation and being aware of the things that can happen. Nets can help in this case, but the newest developments are largely unnecessary – and may hurt the overall experience of taking in a game in person at any MLB ballpark. It will be a challenge for the MLB to determine whether this is the best solution to their fan safety problem.