TORONTO – Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t need to learn of the frightening injury to a little girl struck by a line drive at Yankee Stadium to be reminded of the potential for danger in the stands at a baseball game. Only Tuesday night did a Marcus Stroman sinker shear off Salvador Perez’s bat at the handle, the barrel-turned-stake hurtling a couple dozen rows into the seats on the third-base side of the field. A man was struck in the abdomen, fortunate to avoid the jagged end and be left only with a large welt.
Still, the incident in New York in which a girl was hit in the face by a 105-m.p.h. rocket offered a renewed impetus for the Blue Jays to review the protective measures at Rogers Centre, something they plan to do during the off-season.
The dome was in compliance with Major League Baseball recommendations even before they were updated in December 2015, with fans in the field-level seats between the near ends of both dugouts protected by netting. And unlike some other ballparks, the adjacent seats start well beyond the suggested 70 feet of home plate.
Given the rising velocity of pitches – and by extension, exit speed of balls off the bat – that may no longer be sufficient. Add in the potential for flying bat shards with jagged ends and the increased use of mobile phones or other distracting screens by fans in the stands, and clubs have good reason to reconsider their current standards.
“We absolutely want to ensure that our fans are safe when they come to the ballpark,” Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins told Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith. “I watch games at lots of minor-league stadiums, often with my children. I’m extremely mindful about ensuring the safest possible environment for all fans.”
Already the Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres announced that they plan install additional netting next season, while in a statement, commissioner Rob Manfred noted that MLB has worked with teams to expand netting and that “in light of (Wednesday’s) event, we will redouble our efforts on this important issue.”
The challenge facing teams is how far to go with expanded netting, with the Reds and Padres saying they will go the ends of both dugouts, and the Mariners and Rockies each saying they are still finalizing the details.
At some stadiums in Japan protective netting runs foul pole to foul pole, and there’s a reasonable debate to be had as to whether that’s prudence or overkill. Tied in are questions as to whether too much netting detracts from the fan experience and to what degree of danger do fans agree to take on when they step into a ballpark.
As things stand now, tickets carry a disclaimer that the bearer “assumes all risk and danger incidental to the game,” something that’s helped protect teams in court. In-stadium announcements also warn fans about the risk of paying attention.
The NHL mandated the use of protective mesh above the glass behind the nets at both ends of the rink for the 2002-03 season, after 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil was struck by a deflected shot at a Columbus Blue Jackets game March 16, 2002, and died two days later.
Baseball faces a more complicated task in setting up a uniform policy because unlike NHL arenas, its ballparks each have their own dimensions. But the incident at Yankee Stadium should be the wakeup call needed to provide a similar tipping point for MLB.