The Chicago White Sox are officially the first MLB team to reach the logical conclusion of the unceasing spate of foul balls seriously hurting fans.
Starting Monday, games at Guaranteed Rate Field will be played with protective netting reaching from foul pole to foul pole.
White Sox extend the nets
CBS Chicago’s Megan Mawicke shared a video Monday showing the new protective netting.
It will be the #WhiteSox first game with the extended protective netting up… It goes all the way to the foul poles! I now what I think of it... What do you? @cbschicago #mlb #extendednetting pic.twitter.com/EpqBnV4Zkk— Megan Mawicke (@MeganMawicke) July 22, 2019
The move had been previously reported to be in the works, but the White Sox have struck first and farthest.
The foul pole-to-foul pole netting, which will likely see its share of gripes from fans who prioritize not having to give up one percent of their visibility over the safety of children, matches the nets commonly seen in Japanese and Korean games.
Other MLB teams extending nets
The Washington Nationals also debuted an extended protective netting on Monday, though theirs only extended to an area in the outfield where the stands angle alongside the field.
FIRST LOOK: Nationals park looks a little different & tonight will be 1st game with extended safety netting. Nats are one of a handful of MLB teams that decided to change after a small child was critically injured after being hit by a foul ball in Houston 2 months ago. @ABC7GMW pic.twitter.com/H6bAqjCYSR— John Gonzalez (@ABC7John) July 22, 2019
Two more stadiums could see imminent changes as well, the Texas Rangers were reported in May to be planning the same thing the Nationals have now done while the Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly have plans to extend the nets an unspecified distance.
All of these changes are coming a day after the latest incident of a fan injured by a foul ball. A line drive off the bat of Francisco Lindor flew into the Progressive Field first-base stands on Sunday, hitting a 3-year-old boy who had to be taken to the hospital. Lindor reacted by joining the chorus of MLB players calling for the nets to be extended.
The boy hurt by the Lindor pitch now joins three different fans who have been reported hurt by foul balls at games this year. A 2-year-old struck at a Chicago Cubs-Houston Astros game received skull fractures and seizures, while two more fans had to be taken to the hospital after getting hit at a Dodgers and Nationals game.
Are foul pole-to-foul pole nets a logical endgame for fan safety?
Hopefully, the White Sox’s new nettings will mean the end of all foul ball-related injuries barring freak accidents, like the foul ball that popped over a Dodger Stadium net and resulted in the death of a fan last year.
A White Sox executive reportedly said there was research backing the decision, saying it was a need evolution for the fan experience.
“We are always focused on the ballpark experience for our fans, and, of course, safety is a big part of that consideration,” Scott Reifert, Sox vice president for communications, said Wednesday. “Research into this step goes back months, but [chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf and [Illinois Sports Facility Authority chairman] Manny Sanchez talked about this in mid-June and quickly agreed that extending the protective netting was the right step to take for the ballpark and our team. The game changes, the fan experience constantly changes and we need to evolve, as well.”
Many have been quick to point to the rise of smartphones as the main change in fan experience that is causing the rise in reports of fans being hit by foul balls. And that makes sense, as it’s easy to visualize your standard teenager staring at their phone during live game action. Really, it’s easy to accuse any younger fan of not paying attention to the game unlike past generations, which supposedly had more respect, focus, etc. You get the point.
Of course, that reaction ignores the simple truth that fans today are watching a different game than the one played even 20 years ago.
The rise in pitcher velocity that has defined the modern game has led to a major consequence for all fans within striking distance of home plate: foul balls. FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik documented a nearly 12 percent increase in number of foul balls hit last season compared to 20 years ago. And not only are there more fouls, but it makes sense that faster pitches mean faster foul balls even if players aren’t able to square up the pitch.
It’s easy to say fans should just pay attention during live game action, but that is an unrealistic expectation. Not to mention that some fans (or really most fans) might not even be capable of stopping a 100-mph foul ball careening toward their face, paying attention or not.
Putting nets in front of every infield seating section might sound extreme, but how much longer could a sport allow fans young and old to experience serious risk for something as simple as looking down for two seconds?
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