Blue Jays to announce expansion of protective netting at Rogers Centre

Nate Pearson’s one-inning debut for the Blue Jays in spring training saw him strike out the side as he overcame the nerves of pitching in front of family and friends.

TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays are expanding the protective netting at Rogers Centre nearly all the way down the first- and third-base lines to better protect fans after a spate of frightening incidents around the majors in recent seasons, according to industry sources.

A formal announcement of the plan, which included a slight remodelling of the stands so the 30-foot tall screen can run in one uniform line without the installation of any support poles, is expected this week.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred said in December that 22 teams would be expanding their netting for 2020, with the other eight teams already having screens that run well beyond the dugouts. Unlike 2018, when all teams were required to run mesh between the far ends of both dugouts, there was no formal edict this time, just a collective agreement that more is needed.

The Blue Jays began working on their extension last May, not long after a young girl was struck in the stands by a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. foul ball with an exit velocity of 114 m.p.h. A concerned Guerrero repeatedly looked toward the stands to check on her condition, and she was lucky to have suffered only a welt on her abdomen.

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Just how close a call it was became clear later that month, when a two-year-old girl in Houston – seated in the first section beyond the mesh along the third-base line – was hit by a foul ball off the bat of Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. She suffered a fractured skull with related subdural bleeding, brain contusions and brain edema, and Almora broke down between innings when he walked over to the stands in search of an update.

“I would have felt just like Almora did, I would have felt horrible, especially a baby girl like that. Definitely I’m in favour of extending the netting all the way down the foul line,” Guerrero said through interpreter Hector LeBron during an interview last June. “We, as ballplayers, don’t want to see anyone get hurt. It’s going to happen that we hit foul balls like that. But I think the major leagues should extend the nettings all the way to the foul poles. That way you can protect the fans a lot better.”

Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk also called for more protection at the time, saying teams should “get the most netting they can.”

“A lot of fans have said they don’t want the netting, they want to be able to get autographs, get foul balls, interact with players a little more and don’t want to have to look through a net,” he continued. “But everybody doesn’t want it until it happens to them and they get hit. Let’s be on the safe side and extend the netting and not have to worry about things like what happened in Houston.”

The Blue Jays worked to minimize the impact on sightlines by using the thin, knotless black Dyneema mesh, but the project was complicated by the way their stands curve down the lines.

To avoid the need for large, distracting support poles that pose a risk to players, they pushed the stands and both dugouts out about four to five feet, with padded tops covering the extended areas. That allowed for a single uniform mesh line running along the media bays and in the action seats, supported only by cables attached to the facade of the second deck.

The amount of foul territory at the dome was also reduced, something Blue Jays hitters will surely appreciate.

Only a section and a half in each of the two outfield corners, both of which run nearly parallel to the foul line, won’t be behind a screen now.

The Blue Jays have similar coverage at the refurbished TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Fla., their spring home, where there’s less foul territory and balls would regularly be smoked into the stands.

MLB’s previous changes to netting requirements came after a young girl at Yankee Stadium suffered facial fractures and bleeding on the brain after being struck by a 105-m.p.h. rocket off the bat of Todd Frazier in September 2017. Days before the incident in New York, a fan in Toronto was fortunate to escape with only a welt to his abdomen when a Marcus Stroman sinker sheared off Salvador Perez’s bat at the handle, sending the barrel hurtling a couple dozen rows into the seats on the third-base side of the field.

As velocity and power continue to spike in the sport, so too has the potential for danger in the stands. Factored in with the distraction of smartphones and in-game replays on the videoboards, too many fans were in the line of fire.

To their credit, the Blue Jays have taken important steps to better protect them.

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