Netting has gone up along the first- and third-base sides at Burlington Athletic Stadium in the name of spectator safety.
It’s not the only minor-league ball park to add netting as a way to make environments safer for fans. The Durham Bulls extended their nets to the end of each dugout prior to the season and few complaints have resulted.
With the Appalachian League season beginning this week, it was one of the offseason initiatives for Burlington Royals general manager Ryan Keur.
The nets extend to the bullpen areas, something that should keep screeching line drives from rocketing into the bleachers.
“We’ve gone above and beyond what we really need to do,” Keur said. “We think people can come over here a little more relaxed and not have to worry about every single pitch.”
Incidents throughout various levels of baseball with fans struck by foul balls have created increased attention in recent years.
Last season, the Burlington team was in Princeton, W.Va., when a toddler was struck in the head by a foul ball and players from both teams were shook up by the situation. Burlington manager Scott Thorman said he was pleased to learn that Burlington Athletic Stadium was adding another layer of protection.
“What happened in Princeton is really a wake-up call,” Keur said.
Major League Baseball unveiled recommendations at December’s winter meetings to extend netting at stadiums at all levels in a quest for improved fan safety.
Bulls general manager Mike Birling said the team already had assessed options for additional netting at the Class AAA venue.
At other ballparks, there wasn’t a sense that additional netting was needed. Greensboro Grasshoppers president and general manager Donald Moore said the netting at NewBridge Bank Park was sufficient so nothing was added there.
“We’re good,” Moore said, pointing out the netting has been in place since 2007.
The Greensboro stadium has netting that extends above each dugout, though it’s only a few feet high.
In a game last month, former Burlington outfielder Ben Johnson, now with the Lexington Legends, had part of a broken bat sail over the Greensboro dugout and into the stands.
Durham’s netting is 35 feet high from behind home plate and to the outfield end of each dugout. However, no seat is covered overhead by netting anymore, so that’s a new area where fans could end up with a coveted foul ball.
“Fan safety is of the utmost importance to us,” Birling said. “We want our fans to feel safe at the DBAP, but we also realize there are fans who do not want to watch a game from behind a net. We believe this layout, as recommended by Major League Baseball, allows our fans to select seats that fit the needs and wants of their families.”
Birling said the club was aggressive during the offseason in informing season-ticket holders of the new netting. They were offered refunds or the chance to relocate to other seats, but none took that offer.
“We had no idea how many were going to be upset with it,” Birling said. “I would say most of our fans, 95 percent of them, the reaction is ‘I don’t like it, but I understand it.’ ”
It wasn’t a matter of simply throwing up a net.
“We did so much research on the technology of nets. They’re so thin,” Birling said in the spring. “Give season-ticket holders a couple of homestands and they’re not even going to realize it’s there.”
If anything, poles used to attach the nets are in some sightlines in Durham.
Some fans, though, might barely notice because of cultural changes.
“Everyone is on their phones,” Birling said. “It’s a different world now.”
Perhaps that led to reports of fans struck by foul balls becoming more prominent in 2015, Birling said.
“There’s nothing worse than that,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is safety. That’s what we need to do.
Keur said Burlington’s new netting is 20 feet tall by 100 feet wide, covering new bleachers all the way to picnic areas.
Some previous direct player / fan interaction will be reduced in Burlington, such as youngsters who reached over the fencing along the first- and third-base lines for autographs. Yet at the rookie league venue, there’s ample opportunity for fans to greet players as they go to and from the field.
And, there’s still will be chances for fans of all ages to snag a foul ball.
“The only thing it’s going to take away is the line drives (in the stands),” Keur said. “There still will be kids chasing after foul balls.”
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