MLB parks need full protective netting before it’s too late

Look at her face. Look at the little girl, orange bow in her hair, fear in her eyes, pain and suffering evident. Look at her. Really look at her, no matter how difficult it may be. And then look at the people surrounding her, the adults with hands covering their mouths, because a little girl — a little girl with an orange bow in her hair — got hit with a line drive that screamed into the stands at the Chicago Cubs-Houston Astros game Wednesday.

Look at the entire scene, ugly and awful and entirely preventable, and then tell me Major League Baseball teams don’t need to extend protective netting from foul pole to foul pole. It’s time. It’s well past time, actually. There is no argument against this, no humane argument at least, not when this keeps happening again and again and again and again and again — and children wind up in the hospital, where the girl was taken following the incident, according to the Astros.

What will it take? Someone dying? Actually, that happened last August, when Linda Goldbloom, celebrating her 79th birthday and 59th wedding anniversary at a Los Angeles Dodgersgame, was hit in the head with a foul ball and died of a brain hemorrhage. If a woman dying in the stands is not enough to convince MLB and its 30 teams to expand netting up and out, what will? The death of a child?

This is harsh, and this is blunt, and it has to be. Because the scene at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday after Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr.’s foul shot struck the girl was equal parts alarming, disconcerting and heartbreaking. In the fourth inning, the right-handed Almora yanked a Wade Miley pitch down the left-field line, just past the netting that currently extends to the far end of both dugouts. While the exit velocity on the swing was not made public, Statcast reported that it traveled 160 feet in 1.2 seconds, meaning it was going at least 90 mph. The pall it cast over the stadium was immediate.

Almora dropped to a knee. His eyes welled. He has two little boys. Tears spilled out. Miley tried to calm him. Manager Joe Maddon and teammate Jason Heyward consoled him. Nothing helped. “As soon as I hit it,” Almora later said, “the first person I locked eyes on was her.”

He saw her, the little girl with the orange bow.

MLB needs to see her too, just as a reminder that every game without more protective netting runs the risk of more incidents. The 30 teams in the major leagues need to see her too, to understand that no matter how much the law indemnifies them for foul-ball injuries, the moral imperative is to protect fans. The baseball-viewing public needs to see her too, so it understands why more netting would only enhance the in-person viewing experience.

That’s always the argument from the dwindling segment of fans who oppose netting. It’s entirely ridiculous, of course. Fans sitting behind home plate tolerate netting without any complaint. When all 30 teams extended it to the ends of the dugouts last year, multiple team officials say, the concerns were limited to an insignificant number of fans. More netting would cost teams money and perhaps present logistical challenges. To which the proper response is: And?

Figuring out a solution — protecting people — is more than well worth whatever time and expense it takes. Stadiums in Japan and Korea feature netting from foul pole to foul pole, so it’s clearly possible. And when players witness the horror of what happened Wednesday, it makes them even more steadfast in their stance that more netting isn’t just a good thing but a necessary one.

“Let’s just put fences up around the whole field,” Cubs third baseman Kris 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,” Bryant continued. “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.”

Bryant wasn’t the only one calling for it. Outfielders Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber supported the idea. Nothing terrifies players more than a hard-hit foul ball into the stands. They understand that it’s not about people focusing on their phones, not about preventing kids from partaking in one of baseball’s great joys and sitting close to the field — not about any of the talking points the anti-net crowd bleats every time this happens.

Here’s the truth: Even the most astute baseball fan would have difficulty getting out of the way of a line drive when it’s traveling 90 mph or 100 mph or 110 mph. Almora’s foul ball reached the stands in barely a second. Knowing that, it’s not a surprise that Bloomberg News estimated around 1,750 fans each year get hurt by foul balls and broken bats at major league games. The girl here wasn’t the only one struck Wednesday; a man at Dodger Stadium was hit in the head by an Alex Verdugo foul ball as well.

The last incident to stir the league and teams into action came in September 2017, when a 105 mph foul ball hit a young girl at Yankee Stadium and hospitalized her. This should galvanize the league similarly. As much as commissioner Rob Manfred tries to be hands-off and allow each team to determine its own ballpark configuration, this issue demands strong, proactive leadership. If Manfred came out Thursday, lamented the horrible injury and said he was mandating teams begin design efforts to ensure every team has pole-to-pole netting in place for the 2020 season, it would be an unmistakable message to fans that their concerns are a top priority of the league.

Remember, after the death of 14-year-old Brittanie Cecil at a hockey game, the NHL installed netting around every arena. Fans adjusted, because netting to the human eye is like white noise to the ear. Eventually, it became the norm, as standard as the netting in the back of a goal.

Surely MLB recognizes the fear about netting is a fallacy, that the threats to boycott games with extended netting are the idle blathering of the habitually self-absorbed. Albert Almora Jr., very clearly, is not such a person. When a security official at Minute Maid Park updated him on the girl’s condition an inning after the incident, his head burrowed into her shoulder, his emotion spilling out. While he would not reveal what the security official said, he did say that her words allowed him to continue playing, which dovetailed with sources telling ESPN’s Jesse Rogers that the prognosis was positive.

“God willing,” Almora said, “I’ll be able to have a relationship with this little girl for the rest of my life.”

Hopefully sooner than later, Almora can connect with her, with her family, and give them a dose of good news. That the Chicago Cubs, the team whose uniform he wears, plan on extending netting to the foul poles of Wrigley Field, and that Major League Baseball, the league Almora represents with such class, plans on doing the same at 29 other stadiums. That her injury won’t keep happening again and again and again and again and again. That a little girl with an orange bow in her hair can watch the best baseball players in the world without any fear, any pain, any suffering.