Extended safety netting becoming standard in suburban ballparks

Following the lead of all 30 Major League Baseball teams, suburban minor and independent-league ballparks are extending their protective netting from behind home plate to the outer ends of their dugouts to keep fans safe from foul balls and flying bats.

Rosemont’s new Impact Field will have the netting in place when the Chicago Dogs host their inaugural home opener Friday night, while Schaumburg’s Boomers Stadium will add more netting later this summer. Northwestern Medicine Field in Geneva, home to the Kane County Cougars, will install the extra netting over the next off-season.

Experts say changing factors in America’s pastime are making the need for additional fan safety impossible to ignore, triggering an upgrade for which there likely will be no holdouts.

“Quite frankly, I think that’s a good thing from a safety perspective,” said Robert M. Gorman, co-author of the 2008 book “Death at the Ballpark: A Comprehensive Study of Game-Related Fatalities, 1862-2007.”

Gorman believes momentum for additional safety measures began with David Glovin’s 2014 Bloomberg News article “Baseball caught looking as fouls injure 1,750 fans a year.”

“It kind of galvanized it for people,” Gorman said. “The problem prior to that was that Major League Baseball claimed they didn’t track (foul ball injuries).”

Gorman said foul balls can fly into the stands at speeds exceeding 100 mph. And at today’s ballparks, fans are sitting closer to the action than ever before.

Among those injured by foul balls in recent seasons was Schaumburg resident John “Jay” Loos. He sued the Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball in October, saying he was blinded in one eye last August by a foul ball along the first-base line. A judge dismissed the Cubs from the lawsuit in March, but Major League Baseball remains a defendant.

Less than four months after Loos’ lawsuit, MLB announced in February that all 30 of its ballparks were heeding the league’s recommendation to extend netting all the way out to the outer edge of dugouts.

Some old-school baseball purists have decried the changes.

Former Schaumburg resident Tom R. Smith, 80, attended all 1,008 home games at Boomers Stadium from its opening as Alexian Field in 1999 through the Boomers’ Frontier League championship series last year.

“It’s like watching a game through a screen door,” Smith said of the netting. “If that’s the way it was meant to be, they’d have done it in Babe Ruth’s time.”

Smith believes the added netting is just a way to market ballpark attendance to people who don’t intend to follow the games.

“No one watching the game gets hit,” he said. “Everyone I saw get hit over all those years got hit because they weren’t paying attention.”

Gorman disagrees. While acknowledging the additional distractions at ballparks today — including some that encourage cellphone use — there are others factors for which fans can’t be held responsible. That includes newer stadium designs that put fans closer to the field and even construction of the baseballs.

Scott Jones, project manager for the Kansas City architectural firm AECOM, which designed Impact Field for Rosemont, said average pitching speeds also have been increasing.

“Hitters have been getting stronger as well,” he said. “In terms of simple physics, the risk of injury from a ball, bat or fragments has to be increasing, and the dugouts were the closest seats to home plate not behind a net. At today’s speeds, total reaction time was as little as a second in those locations.”

Gorman said he would tell skeptical fans two things: safety trumps their opportunity to catch a foul ball, and the newest designs of netting mean they’ll barely notice the extra protections before long.

The village of Schaumburg and Schaumburg Park District, in fact, are in the process of upgrading the $132,000 netting that was planned with a thinner type that will enhance visibility. The Boomers requested the thinner netting, which along with taller pole heights needed to support the expanded netting, will cost about $50,000 more.

Though just one of several proposed upgrades to the 19-year-old stadium, there was little question about the netting having priority, Schaumburg Village Manager Brian Townsend said.

“From our perspective, it’s a safety concern we have to take seriously,” he said.

About half the Boomers’ rivals in the Frontier League — which includes the Joliet Slammers and Crestwood-based Windy City ThunderBolts — already have extended their safety netting, said Steve Tahsler, the league’s deputy commissioner.

Most fans’ concerns about the netting eventually fade away, he said.

“The (complaints) we get are usually before the nets go up.”