Should Padres extend safety netting after fan injury in stands?

While injuries are rare at major league games in comparison to how many balls (and the rare bat) go into the stands, questions about ballpark safety arise whenever an incident occurs.

The discussion was renewed here after a Padres fan was injured by the bat that flew out of Hector Sanchez’s hands during Thursday’s game against the Rockies at Petco Park.

So how do you balance the fan experience at the ballpark with fan safety?

Last year, all 30 major league teams extended the netting behind home plate to the inner edges of the dugouts, in accordance with a recommendation from MLB. Six teams have extended the netting further — to the outer edges of the dugouts. Should the Padres join them?

The Padres put out a statement after Thursday’s incident that ended with this: “Any injury at the ballpark warrants evaluation and discussion of current practices.”

Those discussions are ongoing and Padres officials are not yet ready to detail what, if any, changes could be forthcoming. That didn’t stop reporters from seeking Padres manager Andy Green’s opinion on the matter.

“What I hate so much is seeing what we saw yesterday, and that’s really sad that somebody gets hit,” Green said before Friday night’s game against the Dodgers. “I think as soon as somebody gets hit, we immediately want the netting to be expanded because it protects people and we appreciate that. And I know there’s a lot of fans that have enjoyed the fan experience for the last hundred-plus years in baseball, where they get to feel like they’re part of the action with nothing separating them.”

Green will leave it to Padres ownership to determine the proper course of action.

“I think that’s for somebody to weigh those two out and make a determination as to what’s the most important thing,” he said. “That’s way above my pay grade. I’ll pass on that to other people. I understand both vantage points, the fan experience. But as soon as somebody gets hurt and you experience what we experienced yesterday, that a family experienced that, your heart goes out to them.”

Bloomberg News reported in 2014 that 1,750 spectators (23.7 fans for every 1 million in attendance) are injured each season by batted balls. Bloomberg’s analysis indicated that most injuries are minor, cuts and bruises, although a handful were significant.

Bats going into the stands occur perhaps three or four times a season. In an informal poll of half a dozen regular press box observers, including two Padres officials, none could recall the last time a fan was injured by a bat at Petco Park.

MLB’s recommendation in December of 2015 advised teams to extend the netting 70 feet from home plate to the inner edges of both dugouts. Eleven teams already had done so, and every other team joined them by the start of the 2016 season.

Four franchises — Kansas City, Minnesota, Texas and Washington — went a step further, extending the netting all the way to the far edges of the dugouts.

Dustin Morse, Twins senior director of communications, said the extra measures were “us being proactive.”

“A lot of it had to do with the structure of our ballpark,” Morse said. “I believe the seats above our dugout are as close to home plate as any ballpark in baseball. Our executive leadership just looked at the pros and cons of it and we feel a lot better with the nets up. … It really has made a lot of people more comfortable with the proximity to the game.”

Morse said they did hear from some fans about having to look through the netting, “but really that just lasted a few days. The technology we used, it’s a very thin net, so it’s really a non-issue for us.”

Philadelphia did likewise coming into the 2017 season, perhaps nudged by incidents last August when balls struck a girl in the face and a woman in the mouth (chipping teeth) in back-to-back games.

With Atlanta extending the netting to the edge of the dugouts in brand new Sun Trust Park, that means 20 percent of the teams now have protective netting extending the length of their dugouts.

There are some fans who have pushed back at the increased safety measures. Most notable is author Stephen King, a Red Sox season ticket holder, who was not happy with netting put in front of his seats at Fenway Park. The change came after a highly-publicized incident in 2015 when a woman suffered a serious head injury from a broken bat.

King wrote an opinion piece last year for the Boston Globe. Among his comments:

“There are questions inherent in the decision to net, and I think they’re bigger than baseball. Like when does protection become overprotection? Is the safety of a fan at a public event like a baseball game the responsibility of the organization putting on that event? When do safety precautions begin to steal away the pure joy of being there?”

That last question is one teams like the Padres will grapple with on a continuing basis.


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