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Why protecting fans is complicated

We've all seen this too many times.

The foul balls hurtling over the dugouts. The shattered bats gyrating into the seats.

The innocent people -- women, kids, grown men -- crumpled over in pain. Blood streaming. Medical crews sprinting in their direction.

Baseball games grinding to a halt. Players' faces etched in pain.

Too. Many. Times.

"I've got a glove over there, and I'm paying attention, and I still get nervous," New York Mets third baseman David Wright said this week. "So you just kind of hold your breath every time you see a ball go into the stands quickly."

It's no accident then that this year, more than any other, we've heard more voices than ever asking: Why? Why are we still talking about this? Why haven't the powers that be in Major League Baseball done something already?

Well, here's the truth: Baseball is going to act. Among MLB and club officials, there is too much strong sentiment to address this problem by next Opening Day for baseball to ignore that sentiment and do nothing. And MLB is already in the midst of the most scientific study of this issue that has ever been conducted.

But here's what I've learned, after spending the last week talking to people inside and outside the game about fan safety:

It's complicated. More complicated than a lot of folks in the sports or media business have let on lately. Here is why:

No ballpark is the same

It seems like such basic stuff, to string protective netting down the lines. But is it? Really?

Fenway Park was built in 1912. Marlins Park was built in 2012. Do they have anything in common -- other than four bases, a pitcher's mound and the greenest grass in town?

Turner Field was built for the Olympics. The O.co Coliseum in Oakland was built for the late, great American Football League. Seven ballparks have roofs overhead. All but two of them retract.

There's next to no foul territory in Wrigley Field. There's enough foul territory in Oakland for the Raiders to practice their punt coverage.

Get the picture? So to extend netting in each ballpark requires a different architectural and engineering challenge. Not to mention the fact that each city imposes different construction rules and standards. So any sport-wide edict would have to be flexible, so it can take all of that into account.

"There are going to be some individual decision-making here because of the design of ballparks," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, said during a visit to Philadelphia on Thursday. "The designs are so different. Frankly, when we started to look at it, you lose track of how different they really are. It's more of a challenge to devise meaningful guidelines for the industry because the ballparks are so different."

What areas need protection?

In Japan, protective netting extends from foul pole to foul pole. In most big-league ballparks, that netting extends only from on-deck circle to on-deck circle. So even if there's overwhelming sentiment around the sport to expand that netting, how far does it really need to be extended?

That's a question MLB itself can't even answer -- yet. So Manfred told the 30 owners at this month's owners meeting that baseball is looking into that very question and all its permutations.

How many foul balls enter the stands during an average game? Where do those foul balls land? Where are fans in any significant danger, and where is there next to no danger? MLB is gathering that data as we speak. It expects to have the results sorted out soon, so that recommendations can be presented to owners at their November meetings, Manfred said Thursday.

But while we await those findings, we gathered our own, courtesy of Edwin Comber, creator of the fascinating website, Foulballz.com. Here's what he told us:

• Over the 15 years he has studied this, the average number of foul balls hit per game is 46. Between 15 and 17 land in the stands. Another 10 are fielded by a player, coach, ball boy, etc., and flipped into the seats. The rest end up in dugout ball bags and get recycled for batting practice the next day.

• "Generally," Comber wrote in an e-mail, "the most dangerous areas, those areas that have the foul balls with the most speed and lowest trajectory (a.k.a. line drives), are those between the netting and dugout, those sections behind the dugouts and one or two sections beyond that. Beyond that, the velocity drops significantly and, to reach those seats, the foul has to be elevated. That gives fans more time to respond."

So does baseball genuinely need to extend the netting all the way to the foul poles? Comber says no. In fact, he's not even convinced there's a legitimate need to extend that netting at all. But then again, he wouldn't be one of the people sued by the next fan who gets hit by a foul ball.

Do fans even want to be protected?

When columnists and talk-show hosts demand that MLB protect its fans, they're forgetting something: Not all of those fans are looking for protection.

When the players' union raised the issue, in both the 2006 and 2011 labor negotiations, of extending the netting beyond just the home-plate area, MLB's response was that fan surveys showed that people opposed the idea.

More recently, in a June online poll of 475 people at NJ.com, following the serious injuries suffered by a woman hit by a bat at Fenway Park, 57 percent of respondents said MLB should not extend that netting down the lines in the interest of fan safety.

And executives of clubs around the sport report that a large segment of their fan bases continues to tell them it doesn't want to pay big bucks for the best seats in the house and have to peer through any kind of netting -- or lose the ability to interact with players.

But it isn't just them. Even in the midst of strong comments by players across baseball this month, urging MLB to take action, it's not too difficult to find other players who admit that even they have mixed feelings.

Asked this week about some of the potential solutions that baseball is thought to be studying, Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson told ESPN.com: "I'd be interested to see some of the ideas. But then, don't forget the fans. Ask them their opinion. Say, 'We're going to try this.' And ask them what do they think: 'Do you like this, or do you not like it?' We're still going to play. But the fans are going to decide if they want to come or not come because of this. So ask them."

Excellent point. So that's what we did.

Steve Kada, of Holland, Pennsylvania, sat with his 12-year-old son, Chris, in the second row behind the home dugout at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday night, enjoying the spectacular view. I asked if having a net in front of him would affect his enjoyment of this experience.

"It would," he said, without any hesitation. "The idea of having a clear view, where you can almost reach out and touch these guys, I think is worth the price of admission. And it would bother me. Knowing the risk involved, I would still take that chance -- and keep an eye on this guy," patting his son on the shoulder.

I asked Steve Kada if he thought baseball could lose something that it couldn't recapture, if fans along each line were to find themselves sitting behind netting.

"I think so," he said. "I'd have to give it some thought. But honestly, the whole idea of being boxed in while at a stadium is not something I would enjoy. The whole experience of it -- the field being up close, it's open -- that's just part of the game. And where does it stop? I don't want to be caged in."

But how many fans share those views? These days, there is no better vehicle than social media to find out. So on Thursday, I asked people on Twitter:

Almost instantly, the tweets back began flooding in, by the hundreds. I found I couldn't count them all and write this column at the same time. So I logged the responses of the first 100 people who took a clear stand. It turned out 68-32 in favor of more netting.

But two hours later, I went back and noticed something. Sentiment had turned. So I counted another 100 responses -- and it turned out much closer, only 54-46 in favor of more netting.

So what does that tell us? Well, as I recall mentioning at the top of this story, it's complicated.

And that's one reason Manfred hasn't acted yet, even after saying in June, following the incident at Fenway, that MLB would "react strongly" on this issue.

The commissioner - and, in fact, all MLB officials - have been reluctant in recent weeks to comment publicly on the specifics of what they're contemplating because of a lawsuit filed in July on behalf of an Oakland A's season-ticket holder, and because of the fear of more lawsuits.

"I'd be interested to see some of the ideas. But then, don't forget the fans. Ask them their opinion. ... We're still going to play. But the fans are going to decide if they want to come or not come because of this. So ask them."
Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson

Yet behind the scenes, it's becoming more clear every day that the question baseball is pondering is no longer whether to take action. It's what action, or actions, make the most sense and will least affect the experience of attending a baseball game.

So MLB is studying a number of different options. There are advancements in netting itself, such as this one, which would minimize the distractions of watching a game from behind a net. They'll be looked at.

There is the potential for retractable netting, similar to the netting the NFL raises and lowers for extra-point and field-goal attempts. Ideally, that would preserve the sort of fan-player interaction this sport would hate to see disappear -- players giving autographs, flipping baseballs into the seats at the end of every inning, etc.

There could be options to install netting of varying heights, depending on how far down the line it would be located, and to maintain openings overhead, so fans could still catch high foul balls but be protected from those ominous screaming line drives.

Or there is still the possibility that MLB could do what the NHL did more than a decade ago, after a fan was hit by a puck and died: Just decide that safety takes precedent over anything and everything, put up that netting and assume that fans will get used to it sooner than they think.

The Arizona Diamondbacks quietly extended the netting in their park in 2014, on their own. The complaints have long since stopped. The St. Paul Saints, of the American Association, did the same. Here's what their owner, Tom Whaley, tweeted Thursday:

But people inside the game also have come to grips with this unfortunate reality: No matter what they do, they can't protect every fan from every potential mishap -- for one fundamental reason:

They're not even watching the game

Look around. You see it every night. Many spectators now spend more time looking at their phones, their food, their beverages, their friends and the many sights and sounds around them than they do actually watching the baseball game unfolding in front of them. And that's a huge issue, with no easy solution.

"I'd like to see something happen [to protect fans from injuries]," said Philadelphia Phillies player rep Justin DeFratus. "But as far as me, my personal opinion, the best way to prevent it is: Fans need to pay attention to the game."

Practically every day, DeFratus said, he sees fans in the outfield getting smoked by home-run balls -- in the face. In batting practice. And "by the time you say, 'Heads up,' it's too late," he said. So he and his fellow pitchers, in the outfield shagging flies, often find themselves "screaming out there, 'You've got to pay attention to the field,' especially if there are kids, because the last thing you want to see is somebody get hit in the mouth."

But no matter what MLB decides to do or not do, we are never going to live in an age where nets extend all the way around the outfield and block home runs from reaching the seats. So there is always going to be a certain amount of risk involved in attending a baseball game. And that won't ever change.

But that's not all this sport is working hard to keep from changing. Here's a question: If netting circles the field, would it mean the end of some of baseball's greatest Web Gem moments -- Anthony Rizzo, Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, Derek Jeter, etc., toppling into the stands to turn foul balls into outs? We hope not.

"I don't want to go diving into a net some day," laughed David Wright. "That's for sure."

And even more important, would those nets put an end to a long tradition of players and fans sharing priceless moments of interaction -- bonded by autographed pictures, souvenir baseballs and photo ops? Again, we hope not.

"I know a lot of fans get really upset when you toss the ball to the person next to them and you didn't toss it to them, at least in my experience," Granderson said. "And I'm like, 'Guys, there are 40,000 of you. I've got one ball. Sorry I didn't toss it right to you. But this person also asked. And that person also asked.' And that's a question that gets asked a lot, from a fan to a player: 'Can I have ... ball, bats, batting gloves, jersey, hat, this, that and the other thing?' And so, since there are openings, if I say yes, I can give it to them. So there would definitely be a lot of people who have asked that question, that will be slightly disappointed, I think, if we put up nets."

But is there a middle ground out there somewhere? Some way to protect those who need protecting, but not have that netting turn into an impenetrable wall, one that separates players from customers for the rest of time?

That's a question Rob Manfred and his cohorts are attempting to answer as you're reading this. Fortunately, they seem to fully comprehend that fan safety needs to be at the top of their priority list right now. But what's a solution that works for everyone? Whew. As we were saying ... it's complicated.