Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending yet another awesome game of Double-A baseball at Hammons Field in Springfield. My family and I had tickets on the front row, behind the Cardinals' dugout on the first base side. There's really not a bad seat in the house when it comes to Hammons, but this really was one of the best seats I've ever had there, and the game lived up to it.
Some clouds kept it from being a sweltering evening, the Cardinals and Naturals were in a back-and-forth battle, several home runs left the park, and the home team eventually took the win in walk-off fashion.
And at no time did I experience the usual anxiety that comes with sitting so close to the field. You'd think a former third baseman and current on-field photographer would have grown used to the possibility of getting hit by a ball by now, but I'm a natural worrier. I get that from my mother.
But my mom and I were able to sit comfortably in the front row for the whole game without worrying because of one simple recent change to the park's grounds: extended nets.
It's become a hot-button issue in the baseball world over recent years, and particularly in the last couple of months, during which multiple fans have been hospitalized after being struck by foul balls. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred even addressed it during Sunday's London Series game between the Yankees and Red Sox.
"Fan safety is a crucial issue for us," he said, but added that it's difficult to implement the change mid-season because the layout and logistics are different for every stadium.
And indeed, like Hammons field, every major league park had to extend netting to the far ends of the dugouts before this season, but the problem has only continued to grow. A toddler in Houston, two fans in Los Angeles and another in Chicago have all been injured this season alone, causing many fans and even two Illinois senators (Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth) to call for netting to extend to the foul poles.
A recent survey by ESPN showed 78 percent agreement that more netting is a good idea. The minority 22 percent who disagree with the idea, however, had a number of reasons to oppose the safety measure.
"The opponents to netting said it is a bad idea because it obstructs fans' views, and because fans know and understand the risks of getting hit," an article summarizing the survey said.
After sitting behind the net on Friday, I can easily refute the first point -- as can anyone who has sat behind the plate at any big league park or even as close to home as the Aurora Houn' Dawgs' or Verona Wildcats' baseball/softball fields. The net-style fence is far less obstructing than even chain link fences. This argument is plainly ridiculous.
The second point is the one that has kept the league from being held liable for these injuries over the years. Because tickets are printed with warnings and fans close to the field are in view of signs telling them to watch out for objects coming from the field, teams can't be held responsible when a fan gets hurt by a foul ball or launched bat.
I'm no lawyer, so I won't argue the legal side of it, but from a fan's perspective I don't like this argument either. Baseball games are long. Baseball stadiums are lively. Cell phones exist. It's extremely unreasonable to expect people to be on guard for every second of live action during a baseball game. Especially in the case of small children (and their parents).
Not to mention the fact that baseballs are flying at ridiculous rates of speed when lined into the stands. Even if fans are strong-willed enough to pay attention constantly, the vast majority do not have the reflexes of even below average corner infielders, which is pretty much the requirement to avoid or catch a line drive.
One last "argument" I see against netting is that it keeps fans from having special moments with players or getting souvenir foul balls. And I'll admit, a tiny piece of me was disappointed that my younger brother wouldn't get a ball tossed to him by a player coming off the field on Friday, but ultimately, that's not why we were there. We were there to be together as a family and enjoy the sport that brings us together better than anything else can.
If your enjoyment of a baseball game hinges on bringing home a game ball, sit in the outfield stands. Kids still got special moments with players before the game, and plenty of foul balls still made it over the netting, as popups that were harmful to no one.
One person's enjoyment of the game should never outrank another person's safety.
And on the subject of special moments with players, let's consider those players in all of this. After Albert Almora, Jr. hit the foul ball that struck the little girl in Houston, the man was a wreck. He's not the first player to have to live with the guilt of this kind of incident, and unfortunately he will probably not be the last, either.
These men are there to provide us with entertainment at the highest level of their sport. They are just doing their job -- a job that shouldn't be inherently dangerous to those there to witness and enjoy it.