DENVER – In the seventh inning of the Toronto Blue Jays’ 4-3 win over the Chicago White Sox on May 10, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., turned on a 94.4 mph fastball from Evan Marshall, got a hair out in front of the ball and ripped it into the stands.
At an exit velocity of 114 mph, fans in the seats well down the third base line at Rogers Centre had maybe two seconds, at most, to get out of dodge.
One of them, a little girl, didn’t. There was a collective gasp when she was struck. One nearby fan stood up and motioned for help. Some 250 feet away, Guerrero stared into the stands, concern replacing his usual joviality, as she was ushered up into the concourse.
Thankfully, she managed to avoid serious injury.
I just spoke to the little girl who was hit by Guerrero's liner in to the seats. She's fine and smiling.
— Jamie Campbell (@SNETCampbell) May 11, 2019
The ball struck her on the right side of the abdomen, causing a big red welt. A little bit higher and the scene might have been as heart-wrenching as the one in Houston this week, when a foul ball off the bat of Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr., hit another little girl, seated in the first section beyond the protective along the third-base line. Almora was understandably distraught afterwards, breaking down between innings when he went to check on her status.
One fan spoken to by the Houston Chronicle said the girl was conscious as she was carried up the steps. The team later said she was taken to hospital and there hasn’t been an update on her status since.
All of that was a few inches away from happening in Toronto the night of Guerrero’s foul ball.
"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 says through interpreter Hector LeBron during an interview. "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."
Guerrero isn’t alone in feeling that way among players, and teams really don’t need to study the issue before acting. The NHL mandated protective mesh above the glass behind the nets 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. Shame on Major League Baseball if this is what it takes for the netting to be extended, especially with the far higher frequency with which balls end up in the stands.
The commissioner’s office most recently amended its netting requirements ahead of the 2018 season, requiring meshing to run at least between the outer ends of both dugouts. At that time, the Blue Jays extended their screen around home plate by 150 per cent, the net behind home plate rising from the previous 18 feet to 28 feet above the playing surface, while the netting over the dugouts standing 26 feet above the turf.
Those changes came after a young girl at Yankee Stadium suffered facial fractures and bleeding on the brain after being struck by a 105-mph 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.
While the focus tends to be on the dangers to fans at big-league stadiums, the more intimate settings at minor-league parks are in some ways even more frightening. At Dunedin Stadium, for instance, the seats were already dangerously close to the play before the current refurbishment began, and with plans to eat into some of the current foul territory, installing foul-pole-to-foul-pole netting is absolutely essential to keep fans safe.
And as velocity in the game continues to rise, balls come off the bat harder and fans are increasingly distracted by smartphones or other devices, complaints about extended netting disrupting the fan experience become more and more ludicrous.
"For people’s safety, you should do it, get the most netting you can because you want people to be safe," says Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk. "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. 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."
A couple of incidents stick out for Grichuk.
While he was with the St. Louis Cardinals, a foul ball off his bat hit a fan seated roughly 20 rows up, three or four sections past the dugout. The person wasn’t paying attention, looked up when it was too late and was struck directly in the face.
"Fortunately, he was OK," says Grichuk.
The other came while he was still a prospect in the Los Angeles Angels system, playing at advanced-A Inland Empire in 2011 or ‘12, when someone else hit a foul ball.
"A grandpa took his grandson to the game, he got hit in the eye, had to go the hospital and lost vision in his left eye, broke some bones," he says. "That shakes up the player, too. At that point the player is mentally not into the game anymore, he’s worried about that fan. For all parties, just being safe makes sense."
When Guerrero’s foul ball hit the girl in Toronto, he kept looking over toward the stands, trying to see what was happening.
"It’s not easy to go back in there and focus if you hit someone, but you still have to do your job," he says. "After, when they tell you that everything is OK, you feel a lot better."
No player deserves to have a foul ball that injures a fan on their conscience. Opponents of expanded netting who argue that people simply must pay more attention during play need to give their heads a shake. Ticket disclaimers stating that the bearer "assumes all risk and danger incidental to the game," along with in-stadium announcements about being aware aren’t enough. The players advocating for more netting are on the right side of this one.
"I don’t think our input necessarily matters as much, I think it’s going to be Major League Baseball and the teams deciding it," says Grichuk. "But anywhere that a ball coming at 110 [mph] can hit you in a split second, we need to put netting there. I’d extend it least a section past the dugout, if not more. No one wants it until it happens to them. You think it’s not going to happen to me and then, boom."
The need for more netting isn’t something fans should have to learn the hard way.