When I took my son to a couple of games at Wrigley a while ago, not only did I bring a glove, but I moved to a safer place when I had the chance.
I did not bring the glove because I needed another major league baseball, I brought it for safety. Despite having my glove and a professional career knowing I could catch anything, when I was down the first base line (from the tickets my Phillies family left me), I did not feel totally safe nor did I feel capable of fully protecting him.
That wasn’t because of declining skills since I retired in 2005, either. It was because I know how many diversions and potential ricochets there are along the way to the seats. Fans stand up and set unintentional screens, they miss (probably better than the bruised hand they missed out on) and some unsuspecting fan behind this wall of fans doesn't get hit, only by the grace of a higher power. Otherwise it is 100+ MPH off of a body part. Highly dangerous.
Keep in mind, I was hit by a pitch 41 times in my professional career. As a percentage of my at bats, that is not that big of a number, but considering I wanted to get out of the way of all 41 of those pitches and didn’t, (No, I was not as brave or as reckless as Craig Biggio) that tells you something about velocity in pro baseball. You really don’t want to take one for the team. Your instincts are often against it.
I faced Randy Johnson, Armando Benitez, Robbie Nenn, Alan Embree, AJ Burnett, Darren Dreifort and a whole host of pitchers who lived above 95 miles per hour, a few touched 100 mph. So as a professional hitter, who spent a lifetime trying to slow down lightning speed to make it hittable, I was not always successful. When I wasn’t and the ball hit me, it hurt. Usually a lot. By the way, I was also wearing a helmet.
I missed a bunch of games from being hit on the knee against the Reds in 1999, which probably cost me the league lead in hits that year. I had a lot of motivation to get back on the field, but I couldn’t. That was nothing compared to people getting hit in the face or head. I saw enough guys who were paid to be able to get out of the way carted off.
One day in Triple-A, Frank Viola hit me in the head when he was making his comeback. When I finally got to first base, he stepped off the rubber and asked me if I was OK before he threw the next pitch. We all get it. Players know about the dangers of getting hit in the head. But that is in a controlled battle between pitcher and hitter, not an innocent civilian eating a hot dog.
So imagine a ball coming off of a bat and having no professional ability or skill. You are most likely looking at a phone, an exploding scoreboard, or one of the 8 millions advertising blinking signs around the stadium. Parks are a family entertainment event with water slides, alpaca farms, and bouncy houses. It is a world of distraction to replicate our entire world, one that only enhances the dangers of 100 miles per hour baseballs going into the stands.
Major League Baseball has been facing down this issue for quite some time. They are often caught between their power and the power of the teams. The league generally sets minimum guidelines but the teams have their own power, which can tailor these rules to what fits their environment.
Going to game in Oakland -- where you can practically fit Wrigley Field in their foul territory -- is not as ominous an environment for foul balls as Minute Maid Park or any other stadium where intimacy is a featured asset. So there is not one size fits all because there is no one size stadium. That is part of the character of your home stadium, but it also makes it difficult to standardize everything. Even the warning tracks in MLB are not the same size.
The nets have their detractors with the idea that it obstructs views and takes away from the golden experience of getting foul balls. But foul balls are hit and usually hit pretty hard, so there are certain kinds of foul balls you do not want any part of, no matter how special the moment. But I don’t think it is fair to leave the speed of a foul ball to the assessment of a random fan who is most likely not an expert on ballistics.
Keeping in mind, if I was at a game as a fan and seated all the way down the left field line, and Aaron Judge hit a scorching line drive to where I was sitting, all I would do was get out of the way. Not a bone in my body would tell me to try and barehand that ball, because I know what 100 MPH does to a bare hand. Unless of course, I was trying to save someone who was about to get hit. Hand over skull, yes.
As I mentioned, because of what I know, I would not even dream of having my kids near the dugout without a net. Sorry. I went to the Yard Goats game in Hartford for Father’s Day last year with my kids -- along with a bunch of friends and their kids -- and was in hawk mode, despite sitting way back. Most kids are not fully paying attention, in part because they are young or they are just part of our culture of multi-tasking, but even if they are laser focused, I would not expect them to judge a line drive anyway. Not in the stands. I don’t trust myself with wires, seats, rebounds, cellphones, and the occasional drinking fan around me. It is not a fair fight.
I understand the importance of being close to the action. I still love that aspect of the game. I have memories of going to Shea Stadium and walking down to the top of the dugout; trying to interact with the players. Maybe someone would throw a ball over the dugout after the third out is recorded. There are so many special moments I remember throughout my career because of access and intimacy. It is more than the souvenir, it is the ability to touch the fabric of the game with no walls, no barriers. But maybe we should be able to pull the screens back for pre-game, then put them back afterwards. I imagine some teams may already do that.
The days of full access may be waning because of the risk reward. Maybe they can keep young children from the lower level, which seems like a shame. It is not just the kids who are in danger, it is the adults too.
It was important how Albert Almora reacted. He showed the sheer terror and compassion of a baseball player, a father, one that every player could relate to when a hard hit foul ball goes in the stands. I remember a game in Texas where multiple times someone had to be taken out from getting hit. We had a couple of kids get hit by a flying bat also. Horrible. Most games, nothing major happens in this regard, but it should not have to be luck that you go home safely from a game.
The league has been engaging this topic for some time now and have done a lot to address it, the question still remains, what more should they do and what will the fans demand? But from the reaction of Almora Jr. and the comments from Kris Bryant who commented on the incident in Houston.
"There's a lot of kids coming to the games -- young kids who want to watch us play -- and the balls come in hard," Bryant told ESPN's Jeff Passan. "I mean, the speed of the game is quick, and I think any safety measure we can take to, you know, make sure that the fans are safe, we should do it."
It may be the players that have the strongest voice.
I suggest they use it.