More baseball stadiums expand safety netting

The mood inside Yankee Stadium shifted dramatically during a game last September when a foul ball, clocked at 105 mph, shot off the bat of Todd Frazier and struck a two-year-old girl in the face.

She was sitting with her father on the third base side of the stadium, where there was no protective netting. The girl survived but suffered a broken nose and several other facial fractures.

The incident brought Frazier and several other players to tears. It also sparked recent conversations and modifications to South Carolina’s college and minor league baseball stadiums.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Ron Manfred said after the incident at Yankee Stadium that the league would look into netting options. On Feb. 1, he announced that all stadiums must extend their netting at least to the far ends of both dugouts.

According to ESPN, 10 MLB teams extended their netting by the end of the 2017 season, and another 12 will do the same by the end of this season.

A 2014 study by Bloomberg shows that about 1,750 spectators are hurt each year by batted baseballs. Most are minor and require no serious attention.

But changes are on the way.

‘Protect our fans’

Less than a year into the job as athletic director for the College of Charleston, Matt Roberts was ready to address the baseball netting at the school’s stadium in Mount Pleasant.

The netting stopped at the front of the dugouts when Roberts took the job in October 2016. When the Cougars took the field Friday for their first game of the season, the team had a new netting system that extended to the end of the dugouts.

The netting and the new padding on the outfield walls cost just under $100,000. The upgrades protect fans who are seated behind first and third base, Roberts said.

“We were going to do this anyway, but the things you see with children getting hit by foul balls further validates that decision,” he said.

Other Palmetto State schools, such as the University of South Carolina and Coastal Carolina University, also have protective netting that extend to the end of the dugouts.

With Coastal, the Conway school spent $10.2 million — including more than $150,000 for netting — on its new stadium that opened for play in 2015.

“It was part of the plan when we built the new stadium,” said Mike Cawood, a spokesperson for Coastal Carolina. “We wanted the fans to be as close to the action as possible, but also make sure they’re protected.”

South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Mark Kingston agreed. The netting at Founders Park protects those behind the two dugouts — something Kingston believes is for the best.

“Obviously, I would support anything that helps protect our fans,” he said.

‘Small price to pay’

Before Major League Baseball made the announcement earlier this month, the organization sent recommendations to its 30 teams in December 2015, suggesting that they also extend their netting past the dugouts.

The letter also suggests that they educate fans on staying alert, and provide information to ticket buyers on which seats are protected by netting.

MLB recommended the same for its minor league clubs.

“Many of our ballparks already exceeded the recommended levels of protection for seating areas and many of those that weren’t at the time the recommendations were made have added netting,” Jeff Lantz, Minor League Baseball’s senior director of communications, told The Post and Courier.

Riley Park, home of the Charleston RiverDogs, is one of those ball clubs with netting that extends to the ends of the dugouts. The same goes for the Greenville Drive, while the Columbia Fireflies’ netting extends all the way to the end of the outfield.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ netting extends to the home plate side of the dugout.

RiverDogs president Echols recognizes that some fans are turned off by the extended netting and would prefer an easier opportunity to catch a foul ball.

In those cases there’s plenty of other seating where the netting isn’t in the way. But for those closer to the action, it’s a small price to pay, Echols said.

“We attract all types of fans, from those who want to be as close to the action to those who want to take safety precautions,” he said. “But overall, the safety of our fans is a major part of the operational and entertainment culture we provide.” – by Derrek Asberry, Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)