The All-Star break is over, the White Sox have completed a 10-game road trip, and the South Side is hosting Major League Baseball games again. This time, though, with a new feature.
Monday, the White Sox unveiled extended protective netting stretching from one foul pole to the other, shielding fans sitting in the stands from foul balls screaming off the bats of the best hitters in the world.
Fans getting hit with batted balls has, unfortunately, been a recurring talking point this season. Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. lined a foul ball that hit a young fan during a game in Houston. Guaranteed Rate Field has seen multiple instances of fans being hit with foul balls this season. And across the game the increased exit velocities are producing more dangerous projectiles entering the seating area.
Extending the protective netting, which Major League Baseball currently mandates needs to reach only to the end of the dugouts, seems like a no-brainer, and the White Sox acted quickly to do just that.
“It’s a great idea,” White Sox relief pitcher Evan Marshall said before Monday night’s game. “It’s a shame it wasn’t done sooner and just almost the standard across baseball, I think. Finally the players are kind of speaking out because everybody is tired of seeing people get hit.
“I get it. You can make the argument it takes away from the fan experience, the whole chance to get a foul ball. But I don’t know. Enough is enough. People are getting crushed in the stands. It happens to a little kid, it just devastates you.”
Players in the White Sox clubhouse have been vocal about the need for extended netting since the incident involving Almora and repeated their desire to see it implemented after the team announced their intent to do so last month. The issue’s not going away, either, with Cleveland Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor recently speaking out after a similar occurrence involving a 3-year-old fan in Ohio.
Now the nets are up on the South Side, and again, it seems like a no-brainer of a decision.
Certainly there will be those opposed, as Marshall alluded to, though even in person, the nets don’t do much in the way of blocking views from the stands.
The view from behind the new netting at The Rate, live from Section 111, Row 16 pic.twitter.com/9eGtCO4t0r— Vinnie Duber (@VinnieDuber) July 22, 2019
But any change is often enough to set off some fans. Still, White Sox spokesman Scott Reifert said the reaction to the team’s move has been positive.
“The reaction we've seen so far has been really positive,” he said Monday. “People understand that the ballpark experience has changed from just a few years ago. Pitchers throw harder, balls come off bats harder, people are spending more time looking down at their phones — we're all guilty of that — or at the scoreboard. And so I think safety matters to folks.
“I think overall it's been a positive reaction. … If you look, it's light colored, it doesn't really seem to impact (the view). We've tested, we've sat in seats, and we don't think the impact will be very dramatic for most people.”
The bottom line is the safety of the fans. And though some will make the tired argument that fans should pay closer attention to the game, that’s simply an impossibility in these times — and it’s potentially meaningless, too, as White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito has brought up in the past that it’s impossible for players in the dugout to avoid these hard-hit balls, and they’re playing plenty of attention.
Just ask White Sox pitching prospect Ian Hamilton, who was hit by a batted ball while sitting in the dugout earlier this season. That ended his season, as he’ll require multiple procedures to repair the damage to his face.
“Dude, no matter how much you're paying attention to the game, if that thing's coming in 115 miles an hour with tail, no matter if you have a glove this big, it could hit you right in the forehead,” Giolito said when the netting was announced in June. “For me, being around baseball for so long, I think it's a smart move because it just keeps people safe. I hate seeing young kids get hit, having to go to the hospital. It just leaves a sick feeling in all of our stomachs. At the end of the day, I think it's the right move.”
For those autograph-seekers concerned with how the new netting might affect access to players before games, the White Sox left the door open for changes in the future. Think of the remainder of the 2019 season as a test run with the new netting, which can be tinkered with before the 2020 campaign rolls around.
“One of our approaches is: Let's see over the next two months,” Reifert said. “Fans are going to adapt, players are going to adapt. Let's see what happens, and then we can make decisions about next year moving forward.”
One interesting wrinkle is what effect the extended netting will have on the game itself. According to Reifert, the nets will effectively serve as a wall in foul territory (think of the brick walls at Wrigley Field). A batted ball that hits the net on the fly becomes an instant foul ball, which might take away a few flyouts from the left fielder. But a batted ball that bounces in fair territory and then bounces into the net is live, potentially taking away a few ground-rule doubles.
But, of course, the main takeaway here is the increased level of safety for fans attending games at Guaranteed Rate Field. White Sox fans will get the first taste of what this extended netting looks like. Don’t be surprised if it reaches every stadium in the game soon after.