Albert Almora Jr. wept. Geordon Blanton and Gage Hughes understood why.
Maybe there’s a lesson there for those who think anyone in favor of making the baseball fan experience safer is a, to use the pejorative 2019 term, snowflake.
“Obviously no one wants to hit a foul ball at someone, but it’s something that we can’t control,” said Blanton, a Johnson Central product who just completed his sophomore season at Marshall. “If it happens, which it’s bound to eventually, then that’s going to affect that player for at least the rest of that game, if not longer.”
Blanton spoke eight days after Almora lined a foul ball into the stands down the left-field line in Houston. It struck a 4-year-old girl, who was rushed away from her seat. The Cubs outfielder immediately reacted viscerally — after tracking the ball off the bat and putting his hands atop his head in dismay at seeing its destination, Almora could be heard on the NBC Sports Chicago broadcast yelling “Oh my God!” four times before squatting and staring at the ground.
The girl was taken to the hospital. According to at least one report, she ultimately recovered. That hasn’t always been the case, though: 79-year-old Linda Goldbloom was struck by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium in August and died four days later.
“It can be really scary hitting a line drive into the stands because you don’t know where it will end up,” said Hughes, a Greenup County graduate in the Kansas City Royals minor-league system. “You don’t know who is sitting there and don’t know if they are able to get out of the way or not.”
For every hilarious SportsCenter clip of a not particularly athletic middle-aged man trying to catch a foul ball with one hand without spilling the beer in his other hand, there are heat-seeking liners bound for people who either aren’t adequately equipped to catch them or who simply aren’t paying attention.
That raises a series of other questions — all of which come closer to victim-shaming than to actually protecting vulnerable fans.
Should a 4-year-old have been sitting in those particular seats? Maybe not, but that was hardly her fault.
Should we feel sorry for patrons who are staring at their cell phones instead of making sure they don’t get hit by balls whose exit velocity approaches 110 mph? Maybe not, but that’s a reality of life in 2019, and, especially generationally, Americans’ obsession with texting and reflexively checking social media to alleviate boredom isn’t going away any time soon.
Don’t teams do their due diligence by warning fans over the public-address system and printing on the back of tickets to watch out for flying balls and bats? Maybe so, but is that done with a spirit of looking out for patrons’ well-being or to avoid legal liability?
Major League Baseball mandated netting be extended to the outfield end of each dugout in February 2018. While that was progress, it did the young fan in Houston no good, and it doesn’t protect fans from line drives down the line.
According to the Washington Post, MLB players hit at least 1,020 line-drive foul balls with exit velocities of 100 mph or greater as of Monday.
“Look, I think it is important that we continue to focus on fan safety,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday. “If that means that the netting has to go beyond the dugouts, so be it. Each ballpark is different. The reason I hesitate with ‘beyond the dugout,’ I mean, a lot of clubs are beyond the dugout already. But there is a balance here. We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don’t want to sit behind nets. I think that we have struck the balance in favor of fan safety so far, and I think we will continue to do that going forward.”
A potential oft-cited negative consequence of extended netting is that it might hamper players’ pregame accessibility to fans, which is essential to the ethos of high-level baseball. Hughes and Blanton both mentioned that in their remarks.
“It would be much safer for everybody sitting in the lower section, but it will also affect the interactions between the players and fans,” Hughes said of more netting. “Like, it’s always good to give a fan a ball or sign autographs for them, but with the net you wouldn’t be able to do any of that, and I feel like that could decrease the attendance at the games.”
Blanton has given the matter considerable thought and done research, he said, and he thinks he’s found a way around that.
“There’s no reason teams couldn’t put up a retractable net, so that you still get the fan-player interaction before the game, but while the game’s going on, everyone’s still safe,” Blanton said. “I think almost every single baseball player would agree with the whole netting idea.”
Which is something fans, ownership and MLB should take into account when weighing whether to take steps to prevent the next vulnerable fan from getting struck and injured — or worse.
Reach ZACK KLEMME at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.