Coming out of Major League Baseball’s winter meetings, one of the biggest announcements was that every MLB club would have extended netting for the 2020 season. This announcement came on the heels of years of fans being injured and even killed at the hands of foul balls going into the stands. It was a good announcement, a progressive move by an organization that needed the little bit of goodwill they were able to generate from said announcement.
On January 7th, mere days after MLB said they would extend the netting, Richard Mithoff, the lawyer for the family of a two-year-old girl hit in the head by an Albert Almora Jr. line drive in May of last year took back all the goodwill MLB had generated. The little girl has permanent brain damage, routinely suffering seizures now and perhaps for the rest of her life. It was a simple yet stunning announcement. In the few words he sent to the press, Mithoff put forth one item that is important to keep an eye on, that MLB’s move to extend the netting was too little and too late.
It should never have come to a two-year-old girl suffering permanent brain damage, just as it never should have come to a 79-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers fan dying after complications from being hit in the head by a foul ball. Both cases highlight the varying dangers of foul balls into the stands. The foul ball that Almora hit was a screaming line drive, the sort that makes whole stadiums cringe as soon as it enters the stand.
The ball that killed Linda Goldbloom on a balmy August day was a lazy foul pop up off the bat of Franmil Reyes. It traveled over the extended netting and no one thought anything of the pop-up. It hit Goldbloom and the game continued as if nothing had happened. Four days later Goldbloom was dead and MLB seemed to shrug their shoulders.
The ability to extend the netting has always been there. There’s no reason one can give for not extending the netting that doesn’t sound like absolute hubris. The nets don’t obstruct any views, and it’s been shown that the nets can be raised in certain sections to allow one-on-one interactions between players and fans before being lowered down again when the ball is in play.
Asking fans to pay attention a hundred percent of the time is a foolhardy thought exercise put forth by those who don’t understand the basics of human reaction time and attention spans. Elite athletes talk all the time about the reaction time required when a ball is hit at you at even low velocities. Somehow from that, we expect 35-year-old plumbers, two-year-old toddlers, and 79-year-old grandmas to all react with the alertness of Manny Machado?
The word in that last paragraph that I can’t move past is hubris. The more I think about it the clearer it is that MLB operated for years under the hubris that they were untouchable. It’s not like these two specific incidents are the only high profile “projectile in the stands” moments that have ever happened. MLB and Minor League Baseball have always had an issue with bats and balls flying at fans in the stands. They’ve been able to quell any push for extended netting before these incidents.
MLB was able to misdirect, redirect, and refocus fans on more important matters. Well, more important to them anyways, because extended netting would cost more than zero dollars, and that meant it was not a cost that MLB teams wanted to take on in their home stadiums or affiliate parks across the baseball landscape. MLB felt that fans being in danger could be waved away. Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred stated numerous times that this was a team issue. Manfred had numerous opportunities to put his foot down and put fan safety first, and he neglected to do so for reasons that only he knows.
I haven’t even mentioned Alan Fish to this point, a fan killed by a foul ball line drive to the head in 1970. MLB was so easily able to sweep Fish under the rug that most people believe Linda Goldbloom was the first person to die as a result of a foul ball at an MLB game. MLB has long known the risks that fast-moving projectiles present to fans trying to enjoy a baseball game.
In their hubris, they waited until after two people had died and injuries galore had taken place to enact the changes needed to prevent such tragedies from ever occurring. None of that will bring back the fans who died or save a little girl from having seizures for the rest of her life. Extended netting is here and that is a great thing, but by no means should MLB be left off the hook for their willful act of malice towards fans by waiting so long to take action.