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It's Way Past Time For MLB To Better Protect Fans From Foul Balls, And Themselves

September 27, 2017
It's not surprising it took a traumatic, almost tragic, accident for baseball to re-examine its stance on fan safety. It's a subject MLB has talked about for at least three decades -- but rushing to judgment is not one of the game's trademarks.

However, a serious injury to a young girl hit by a brutal foul ball in Yankee Stadium last week seems to have been the tipping point to resolve an issue that has tormented baseball for a long time. An enhanced protective netting almost certainly will be in place in all major league parks for the 2018 season, but it remains to be seen just how extensive it will be -- and how hotly it will be debated.

And it won't come as a shock that those who figure to benefit will also be the ones to complain the most. When it comes to watching baseball, many fans value their viewing experience more than their own safety. They feel extended netting will impede their vision, when in fact it requires only a minor adjustment over a relatively short period of time. Peter Schmuck addressed this issue in his column in the Sept. 27 edition of The Baltimore Sun and it is something that can't be taken lightly any longer.

The resistance baseball has gotten over proposals for extended netting is not much different than objections it got in the past over the use of batting helmets, first by hitters and later by coaches. Hitters claimed helmets were a distraction -- until they became mandatory at every level and players grew up with the notion that having protective headgear wasn't such a bad idea. 

The same was true of base coaches when they were ordered to wear helmets while on the field. Helmets were a distraction -- until they became mandatory. In each case, those who stood to benefit the most were the ones to complain the most. It is no different with the fans.

During a trip to Japan with the Orioles in 1984 the thing that struck me the most about the ballparks there compared to the U.S. was the degree of safety. While MLB is still debating whether the netting should extend past the dugouts, some of the parks in Japan had very high protective netting that went from foul pole to foul pole.

I remember talking to then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn about the degree of safety in Japan, and he said it was a subject of concern that needed to be addressed in the U.S. That was 33 years ago and it is still a subject of concern -- but one that might finally be addressed.

Currently the MLB guideline is for protective netting to run between the near end of the two dugouts. That is not nearly enough, as we found out last week. At the very least, the netting should extend to the end of each dugout -- and I'm not sure foul pole to foul pole isn't the way to go, perhaps tapering from a height of 15-20 to 8-10 feet.

Some fans will complain the netting would take away the fun of tracking down foul balls into the seats, but that is a bogus argument. Most of those are relatively harmless pop flies (though best not to stop one with your head). The kind that hit that young girl in Yankee Stadium is the one that needs to be stopped.

The only way to do it is with protective netting. Next year is not soon enough, but it would be a start. And if MLB is smart it will bite the bullet and make a statement, not a suggestion; enforce a regulation, not issue a guideline; and set the standard for extended netting.

In the new parks today, fans are sitting closer to the action -- and harm's way -- than ever before, and they need to be protected, sometimes from themselves.

***  

Hopefully shortstop J.J. Hardy can appreciate that his final Camden Yards appearance -- at least for the 2017 season, and perhaps his last game with the Orioles -- stirred some memories of Brooks Robinson's final full year.

The date was Sept. 29, 1976. It was the Orioles' last home game of the year -- a 6-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. There were only 8,119 fans in attendance -- a number made more relevant by the fact only 4,598 had showed up the night before.

Robinson was wrapping up a disappointing season, finishing with a .212 average (the same number Hardy took into his "farewell" game). But like Hardy, Robinson wasn't ready to retire. 

Baseball was in the process of expanding to Seattle and Toronto, and both teams had expressed interest in taking Robinson in the expansion draft if he were available. The Orioles were in the uncomfortable position of not being able to make their legend one of the protected players, while at the same time not wanting to see him finish his career somewhere else.

As it turned out, Robinson made it known he wouldn't sign anything less than a two-year contract. Seattle and Toronto both passed, and Robinson returned as a player-coach for the 1977 season.

But on Sept 29, 1976, at the urging a former O's public relations executive Bob Brown, a handful of people put together what was considered a tentative "Thanks, Brooks" salute. There were no formal ceremonies, but manager Earl Weaver put Robinsons in the starting lineup and removed him for pinch-runner Bob Bailor after an eighth inning single. The arousing reception and possible "goodbye" was as loud and emotional as 8,119 people could make it.

It turned out not to be Robinson's last game at Memorial Stadium, but in reality it was as close as he came to closure as a player. He played sparingly the next year, then officially retired in August, while the team was on the road. He never had an "official" last game.

For a lot of people, Sept. 29, 1976 was the real "Thanks, Brooks" day, even more so than the official ceremony a year later. If in fact Hardy has played his last game here, he can take with him the thought that Sept. 24, 2017 was remindful of Sept. 29, 1976 -- and another guy who was pretty special around here.

Anybody else get the idea Orioles manager Buck Showalter might like the idea of Hardy finishing his career as Robinson did -- as a player-coach? Not a prediction, but stay tuned.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com 

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox