MLB recommends extending netting at ballparks

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Eric Hosmer still remembers the gasp from the crowd in Cleveland -- and the sickening silence that followed -- when he cracked a foul ball down the third base line and struck a woman sitting in the front row.

A wide-eyed rookie first baseman at the time, Hosmer was so shaken by the scene that Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost asked him whether he wanted to finish the game.

"The game stopped for a few minutes, and you don't know whether she's going to be OK. It was just scary," Hosmer recalled before Sunday night's season opener against the New York Mets. "I witnessed a couple of people getting hit, especially in the face. It's something you never want to see."

Major League Baseball hopes it's a much rarer sight this season.

After an in-depth study last year, when several fans were hurt by broken bats and foul balls, MLB announced in December recommendations to extend safety netting at ballparks to the ends of both dugouts and anywhere within 70 feet of home plate. Some organizations already met those benchmarks, while most either extended their netting to the recommended distance or stretched it beyond.

In Kansas City, that meant extending the netting to the outfield ends of each dugout.

"I know some of the places we go on the road, sometimes the seats you leave for your family are right behind the dugout or five rows up, and I certainly don't feel comfortable with my mother sitting that close," Hosmer told The Associated Press. "Now that the nets are up, I think it's going to help a lot. It helps the fans that aren't paying attention, but the young kids too. There's too much of a risk."

Safety comes at a price, of course. Those seats are generally among the most expensive in the ballpark, and anything that obstructs the view could hinder the ability to sell them. Attendance is already a struggle in many places, and TV has made the living-room recliner one of the best seats to watch a game.

Then there's the quaint, intimate nature of the game itself. Players and fans have historically been so close to one another that they can easily interact. Many fans who rushed into Kauffman Stadium before Sunday night's World Series rematch were surprised to see the nets obstructing prime autograph-hunting spots. They had to scoot toward the outfield to fish for signatures from Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and the rest of their teammates.

It was a sentiment shared in other ballparks.

"I wish the screen was gone, but I understand the safety concerns as well," said Mike Meyer, a Tampa Bay Rays season-ticket holder who was seated along the first base line for the opener against Toronto at Tropicana Field.

The Rays were among the many clubs that extended their safety netting this season.

"Obviously, I would like a clean view, but it's not possible anymore. You can't have safety and the view too," Meyer said. "The screen, we'll get used to it."

The Phillies, who extended the netting at Citizens Bank Park, are trying to minimize the distraction by replacing the old screen with new netting. Not only is the material stronger, but it's also thinner.

"When we buy tickets for games, we know we're going to bring our kids, we're always conscious of where we're going to sit," said Pirates fan Steven Bowman, a father of two, who was sitting behind home plate for Sunday's opener at PNC Park against St. Louis. "We know if we have to do anything or how likely it would be to have a very hard foul ball or something go into the crowd. We try to take that into account."

Just last season, a fan had to be taken out of Pittsburgh's pristine park on a stretcher after she was hit in the head by a foul ball. In Boston, a fan was hospitalized with critical injuries when Oakland's Brett Lawrie broke his bat, and a large chunk of it struck her just outside the reach of the protective screen.

Five years ago, Hosmer was involved in a similar incident in Cleveland. He still remembers it.

"You can be a baseball player or not, but if you're not locked in -- or even if you are locked in -- there are times you can't react to balls," he said. "Now that the nets are up, I think that's going to help a lot."