You don’t need to caution Ron Gardenhire about the dangers of line drives flying into the stands.
Gardenhire coached third base for the Minnesota Twins for more than a decade. The majority of those games came inside the now-razed Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, where fans were afforded one of the most up close-and-personal looks in the Major Leagues — without protective netting.
“There would be people there, and they would put their kid first, so they could see,” Gardenhire said, “And I would walk over there and say, ‘Please, sir, you need to sit in front of your kid so you can protect him.’ I did that all the time, just because the kids had no protection.”
The areas Gardenhire spoke of were above the dugouts, and just past them, years before protective netting became a priority. Two seasons ago, that netting became a requirement.
“There were lasers hit up in there all the time,” the Detroit Tigers’ manager said. “Coaching third base, too many times, I’d look and watch the ball — heads up — to the point where I’d just duck, because I didn’t want to see it anymore.”
The issue was thrust into the national spotlight again after Tuesday night’s Cubs-Astros game in Houston, in which a young girl was struck with a line drive by Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, who was visibly shaken by the situation. After the game, Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant told ESPN’s Jeff Passan that he advocated for protective netting to be installed around the entire field.
“Let’s just put up fences around the whole field,” Bryant told ESPN. “I mean, it’s so sad when you see stuff like that happen.
“There’s a lot of kids coming to the games — young kids who want to watch us play. And the balls come in hard. I mean, the speed of the game is quick, and I think any safety measure we can take to make sure that the fans are safe, we should do it.”
Prior to last season, the Tigers extended protective netting at Comerica Park past Major League Baseball’s requirements: The netting at Comerica Park extends past the end of each dugout — MLB’s requirement — down the first- and third-base lines, at a height of 30 feet.
But Gardenhire believes the netting should extend even further — from foul pole to foul pole.
“I think it should go all the way down each line,” he said. “I’ve seen too many balls hooked and sliced, and people have no chance when it goes in the crowd, they’re going to get hit.
“The ones that go up high, sure, they’re going to have a chance to catch those, but those line drives that are hit — the balls are hit so hard nowadays — I think the scene was terrible.
“It’s one of the most terrible feelings in baseball. I’ve seen so many people hit in this game, above both dugouts when we didn’t have it. It’s been this way for a long time and you know what, I get it. I get it. I cringe every time I see one hit like that and there’s no netting. It’s terrible. So I just think it should be all the way down the line because the balls are being hit so hard nowadays.”
There are many reasons for the growth in attention to this issue in recent years, none bigger than the speed of the game: Players are bigger, stronger and faster; pitchers’ fastballs are faster than ever before and consequently, so, too are the speeds at which hitters are hitting the ball.
Some point to the increase of mobile phones serving as a distraction at games as an issue, but that misses a point: Fans simply cannot protect themselves when a ball traveling at upwards of 90 mph is coming their way.
An small-but-vocal segment of fans have railed against protective netting, saying that it affects their viewing experience and their ability to get foul balls or pregame autographs. Those people are out of touch, Gardenhire said.
“The old school crowd says it’s been that way forever and yes, it has, but I’ve seen too many people hit,” Gardenhire said. “I know the fans buy those tickets because they want foul balls. But the game is a little different now, it’s not just foul balls — it’s bullets — and I just want to make sure everybody’s protected and have a safe time at the game.”