Net result: New protective screens put fan safety first

New protective black netting like this one has been installed at Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, Busch Stadium and Progressive Field. Getty Images

It's a beautiful day at Fenway Park. The sun is shining, The Monster is only slightly greener than the grass, workers are preparing for the upcoming season, and a tour group of baseball fans is learning all about the history of the ballpark. So what if it's Feb. 22?

With Opening Day some six weeks away, the visiting fans are probably wondering what all the fuss is about down on the field. It's actually about them. A crew from Promats Athletics in Salisbury, North Carolina, has just begun the process of installing new protective screening in response to a recommendation made to the 30 franchises by baseball commissioner Rob Manfred last December:

"Clubs are encouraged to implement or maintain netting ... that shields from line drive foul balls all field-level seats that are located between the near ends of both dugouts ... and within 70 feet of home plate."

Fenway Park is as good a place as any to look into this new emphasis -- not a mandate, mind you -- on fan safety. For one thing, the 104-year-old ballpark presents some interesting challenges for Promats. Because of Fenway's old bones, the screen will have to fan out from the overhang behind home plate to the near ends of the dugouts, which are actually farther from home than modern stadiums. "If all goes well, it could take a week to 10 days," says Josh Hicks, the project manager and a former second baseman at Cortland State in New York. "But this is such a unique venue that we could run into some surprises."

Another reason Fenway is of particular interest is because it has been the site of several scary moments in the recent past. One of them occurred at an A's-Red Sox game on June 5 of last year, when 44-year-old Tonya Carpenter was hit in the head and bloodied by Brett Lawrie's broken bat while sitting in box seats near the visitors on-deck circle with her 7-year-old son. She had to undergo brain surgery to repair the damage.

Shortly after her release from the hospital a week later, Manfred said in a news conference at Fenway, "Our first and foremost concern remains the safety of our fans." He also said that since Carpenter's injury, his office had begun exploring such remedies as improved gripping for bats and expanded netting.

Then, just a month later on July 11, Stephanie Wapinski was hit in the face by a liner off the bat of Didi Gregorius while attending a Yankees game in Fenway with her fiancé. She needed 40 stitches to close her wounds.

Those two highly publicized injuries prompted another woman, Stephanie Taubin, to sue Red Sox owner John Henry for negligence. She said that in June 2014, she had been hit in the face by a foul ball while she was in a luxury box from which the protective glass had been removed because of renovations.

Every ballpark has its share of fan injuries, but for some reason, Fenway seems particularly vulnerable -- an irony given that Henry truly cares about the dangers to his fans. That's why the black netting that Josh Hicks is holding in his hand is so important.

"This is Ultra Cross Knotless Dyneema," Hicks says. "It's brand new and it offers the best protection and visibility for fans. Once it's up, the people will feel safer, and they won't even notice there's netting in front of them."

Here's the thing about protective netting. Once up, it has to have the right tension. If it's too tight, it's more prone to fatigue and more liable to act as a trampoline for wild pitches, foul balls, rogue bats, etc. If it's too loose, well, just ask Wendy Camlin, who was seriously beaned by a foul ball off the bat of then-Cub Starlin Castro at PNC Park last summer, just as she was settling into her seat directly behind home plate. "You can adjust the tension with turnbuckles or extra netting," Hicks says. "We usually leave that up to the clubs."

The whole issue of fan safety is also a matter of tension. Baseball is trying to make the right adjustments between safety and intimacy, vigilance and negligence, tradition and change, the law and common sense.

To put it another way, take me out to the ballgame, but don't take me out on a stretcher.

You might have already seen that extraordinary photograph taken by Christopher Horner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review earlier this spring: a father blocked a loose bat just as it was about to hit his son in the face during a Pirates-Braves game at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Even if you have, look at it again because the paradoxes are right there:

Moments before Horner snapped his photo, it would have been a timeless tableau of a father taking his son to his first ballgame, the son sending cellphone pictures of the game to his mother at home from really good seats close to the field on the first base side.

And then the bat of Pirates outfielder Danny Ortiz helicoptered into the stands, and Horner captured not only the heroism of the father, firefighter Shaun Cunningham, but also the fear of the fans around him, the surprise of his son looking up from his cellphone, the realization that baseball needs to do something.

"Thank God Shaun was so alert," Horner said. "That photograph could've been very different if it weren't for him."

"When I let the bat go, I was scared," Ortiz said. "When my wife and I saw the photo, we were terrified."

People who think modern-day ballplayers don't care about the fans should know that the most ardent advocates of fan safety are the people in uniform. Indeed, the Players Association has twice proposed expanded netting in the last two negotiations for the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but the owners rejected it.

"It's something we strongly believe in," Pirates player union representative Tony Watson says. "We know how hard it is to react to a ball coming at you at 95 mph, we know what it's like to have children who are always on their cellphones."

Said another Pirates pitcher, Jared Hughes: "Line drives are scary for me, and I'm a trained professional with a glove."

"Over the years, I've seen too many fan injuries," says Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "I don't want to see any more."

Baseball purists might be worried that the expanded screening will take certain foul pops out of play. But that's not a concern for Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen: "It may mean a longer at bat for the hitter, but there are hitters on both teams," he said. "It'll even out. The most important thing is protection for the fans."

So why hasn't MLB made the safety measures a mandate, rather than a mere recommendation? Well, what really has the powers-that-be worried is that little piece of cardboard, or that QR code on a cellphone, that gets you into the game. They feel that the fans who can afford the more expensive seats close to the field put great value in the intimacy of the experience, the opportunity to interact with the players and coaches, the long odds of catching a lofted foul pop. Manfred said as much in that Fenway news conference back in June.

"It is true that we have fans who express very strong preferences for seats that are close to the field and do not want to have netting in front of them," he said. "That's a fact."

That segment of the fan base is represented by a family of Red Sox fans wearing Mookie Betts jerseys and sitting behind the third base dugout at a Red Sox-Pirates game in Bradenton, Florida, this spring. "I don't like to sit behind the netting," said the mother. "You can't get balls or talk to the players. I kind of understand why they're doing it in our litigious society, but if you're a true baseball fan, you're paying attention on every pitch."

But here is a fact for them: According to an analysis done by Bloomberg News, an estimated 1,750 fans are injured every year in major league parks by balls and errant bats. That comes out to 23.7 injuries for every million fans, which might not seem like a lot ... until you factor in the costs to the victims, both medical and emotional. One woman who was struck in the face in Houston in 2011 had to have 10 operations but still has scars, facial paralysis and more than $500,000 in medical bills.

Hagens Berman, a California law firm that filed a class-action suit against Manfred last July 15 on behalf of injured fans, reports that there have been 90 more incidents at major league parks since the suit was filed -- two alone from Sept. 22 to Oct. 12.

That suit and others bring into sharper focus the fine print on the underside of the ticket, which reads something like: "By attending the baseball game ("Game"), the ticket holder ("Holder") assumes all risk and danger incidental to the Game... including, but not limited to, the danger of being injured by equipment, objects or persons entering spectator areas ("Risks")..." It goes on and on, but what it basically says is that the ticket holder, and not the team or Major League Baseball, is responsible for injuries incurred.

That waiver of responsibility is called simply "The Baseball Rule," and it has been the law of the land for close to 100 years, back to when flamethrowers threw 85 mph, bats seldom broke and radio was new.

As Bob Gorman, a baseball scholar who maintains a website called "Death at the Ballpark" that is devoted to fan safety, says, "It's just not the same spectator experience it was 100 years ago. Nowadays, balls are thrown and hit harder, fans sit closer to the field, distractions are plentiful and everyone's encouraged to use their cellphones."

Major League Baseball maintains that the new safety recommendations are proactive measures to protect the fans, and not a reactive response to recent challenges to "The Baseball Rule."

But as Notre Dame Law School professor Ed Edmonds pointed out in an August op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune, courts in Idaho, Indiana and New Mexico have rejected "The Baseball Rule" as a defense. Wrote Edmonds, "Courts grappling with comparative negligence and comparative fault began to reconsider the absolute bar at the foundation of the assumption of risk doctrine."

Baseball simply can't rely on the fine print any more. To that end, clubs will be posting signs and making announcements about the dangers posed by batted balls and loose bats. And MLB has recommended that the clubs explore more ways to educate fans on safety.

That might not be enough, though, to keep a fan from getting conked by a snap hook into an unprotected field-level section.

The work at Fenway is done for now. "It took us a little longer than we expected," Hicks says. "We had to relocate the main cable, and because nothing is square in Fenway, that was a little tricky. But we're very happy with it and ready to move on." (Promats is also providing protection for Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, Busch Stadium and Progressive Field.)

The job for Major League Baseball, though, is just beginning. "It's a step in the right direction," Gorman says. "But it's only a baby step."

The commissioner should be turning that "encouraged" into an "ordered." Kudos to the Nationals, Royals and Twins, who have taken it upon themselves to extend the protective netting to the far end of their dugouts, beyond what MLB recommended. They can go even farther, to the foul poles.

Some have suggested that the worries over game intimacy could be allayed by a retractable screen. But as Hicks points out, a curtain-like screen that could be raised and lowered wouldn't be as tight and pristine as a set screen. Baseball could, however, put plexiglass shields above the dugouts to protect the fans in the first few rows. And it should explore ways in which the fans and players could interact before a game. "I enjoy that part of my routine," Hughes, the Pirates pitcher, says. "We can figure out a way to toss them a ball and have conversations."

There will always be the fans who crave the proximity and exposure to the game, who see netting as some kind of insult. But baseball shouldn't be catering to that crowd as much as they should be selling fans on the peace of mind that comes with sitting close to the action, yet protected from harm.

As Joe Nocera of the New York Times, an ardent advocate of fan safety, wrote last December, "Major League Baseball should insist on protective netting, just as the National Hockey League did in 2002 after a 13-year-old girl was killed by a flying puck."

Baseball can't afford to let something like that happen. In the end, it's about the fans.

And it's about time.