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MLB must act to make fans safe in the stands

After a series of ugly incidents this season where fans were struck by foul balls -- including a woman who was hit in the head by a line drive and taken away on a stretcher during the first inning of Sunday's game between the Cubs and the Braves at Wrigley Field -- fan safety has become a pressing issue, one the game would be ill-advised to leave unaddressed. Every industry should have customer experience at the top of its list of priorities, of course. And although fan safety has suddenly become a popular topic of discussion, this isn’t a new development: There have always been foul balls hit into the stands, and fans have always been at risk.

Last year, one estimate by Bloomberg put the fan injuries caused by foul balls at 1,750 per season, coming from an estimated 30 foul balls reaching the seats per game. That's roughly three injuries for every four games, caused by anywhere from 50,000-70,000 foul balls per season.

Which is part of the reason that there’s a warning on every ticket in tidy legalese telling you to pay attention or the consequences are on you. But is that really good enough? I’d argue it isn’t, and that baseball must take action, because several variables have changed that have increased the risk to fans.

First, with MLB attendance trending back up, potentially reaching its first season north of 75 million since 2008, there are simply more people in the stands -- and thus more people at risk.

Second, the average fastball velocity is at an all-time high -- around 92 miles per hour. It’s up more than a tick in just the last five years, and it's still picking up steam. So ballplayers throw harder than ever, and that automatically makes for more hard shots into the stands, with the average velocity off the bat now pushing closer to 100 mph. Josh Donaldson crushed a home run in April that came off his bat at more than 120 mph. Before this year, Giancarlo Stanton hit one with an exit velocity over 122 mph. Simply put, balls are moving faster off the bat.

Third, as uncomfortable as it might be to bring up because it risks blaming the victims, there are more ways to be distracted during a ballgame than ever before. That’s not all on the fans, though. Whether it’s your own cell phone or the in-game entertainment on the scoreboard or interacting with a vendor to get a bite or a beer, there’s no end of diversions that might literally take your eye off the ball.

Fourth, as a matter of design, ballparks have more seats closer to the action. Teams have been adding seating in what had been foul territory for years now, and generally charging a premium to sit there. But those seats come with increased risk for the people in them.

There are also questions of responsibility. It's one thing when adults knowingly put themselves at risk by sitting in seats that are more likely to be in the flight path of a hard-hit line drive, such as in the first few rows down the third-base line. A lot of fans do understand the risks going in, but a lot of them don’t, and ballparks don't offer the people in these sections any pre-game instruction about risk or responsibility the way that, for example, airlines do for people in the exit row of an airplane. The standard has long been that you take your chances, and you’d better pay attention.

But there’s something else to consider: What do you do about kids, especially in the more dangerous seats? Stories like this one about a dad catching a foul ball with his 7½-month-old son strapped to his chest make me cringe because there’s no way the kid made the call to put himself at risk. We all get that everybody wants to see a kid get a foul ball -- we were all that kid. I made a point of handing the only one I’ve ever caught to the nearest person under 10, and chances are many of you have, too. But should kids even be in the line of fire in the first place?

Considering all those factors and more, commissioner Rob Manfred should be thinking about what positive steps the league can take to improve fan safety without changing how the game is played. Because of the growing risk, it’s time to acknowledge the need to make changes to all 30 parks in 2016. Whether it’s something as modest as adding a couple feet of hockey-style impact glass all the way down the lines beyond the netting, something as aggressive as extending the full netting all the way to the foul poles, or some other solution, the game must act if it wants to both guarantee that its fans can enjoy the game and protect that rising tide of attendance.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.