As All-Star break approaches, questions about baseball fan safety persist

They were two of the most searing, disturbing images of the first half of the 2019 Major League Baseball season. A man with his arms enveloping a small girl, rushing up the stairs, through the crowd, so she could receive medical attention. And a Chicago Cubs player doubled over in horror at the effect of his high-speed line drive into the stands.

It happened May 29 at Houston's Minute Maid Park, when Albert Almora Jr.'s foul ball rifled just past the third-base dugout into an area unprotected by netting.

About two years earlier, in an eerily similar situation at Yankee Stadium, the New York Yankees' Todd Frazier hit a foul liner that left the bat at 105 mph and also struck a little girl just past the third-base dugout. That shot, on Sept. 20, 2017, inflicted life-threatening injuries on the nearly 2-year-old daughter of Geoff Jacobson.

At that point, all major league stadiums had safety netting from behind home plate to at least the near ends of the dugouts. Six months after the Jacobson injury, for Opening Day 2018, the netting at every MLB ballpark reached the far ends of the dugouts, and a couple of teams, including the Yankees, had extended their netting beyond that. After the ball crashed into the head of the girl in Houston, her family's attorney said the 2-year-old's injuries -- like those suffered by Jacobson's daughter -- included a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain. A visibly shaken Almora said after the game, "I want to put a net around the whole stadium."

"How unnecessary it is that somebody has to go through this again," Jacobson told ESPN. "Another girl gets hurt and maybe this is what makes them go the distance and go to the foul poles [with netting extensions] and make them higher and just try to make it legitimately safe."

Almora's foul ball intensified the debate about whether commissioner Rob Manfred should take the unprecedented step of ordering teams to act on the issue. In the five weeks since the incident in Houston, two hard-hit foul balls, one at Chicago's Guaranteed Rate Field and one at Dodger Stadium, struck fans in the head and resulted in them being sent to the hospital, and fans, commentators and politicians have called for MLB to mandate netting to the foul poles for all 30 teams.

At a June 20 media briefing, Manfred said ballparks' design differences won't allow for a "one size fits all" rule regarding netting, and that it would be difficult in the middle of a season to require significant construction projects. But he said he supports netting extensions, which a handful of teams have announced intentions to install.

The White Sox on June 18 became the first team in Major League Baseball to commit to have netting run all the way to the foul poles.

White Sox executive vice president Howard Pizer told ESPN that, in addition to the danger of balls leaving the bat at speeds that can exceed 100 miles per hour, there's a big concern over fans being distracted by cellphones, scoreboards and other entertainment.

"Even though the idea of putting netting in front of your fans is not what you want to do, you need to do it," Pizer said "I don't think people would be honest if they don't say that they're more comfortable with the netting in terms of their own families' or their friends' security and safety."

Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner, in a June 20 open letter to Nationals fans announcing plans to extend netting almost to the foul poles at Nationals Park, cited the Houston girl's injury. "I can't imagine what her parents must have felt in that moment," he said. "And to see the raw emotion and concern from Albert Almora Jr. was heartbreaking." The Nationals said they would extend the netting during the upcoming All-Star break.

The Texas Rangers, who extended netting to the far ends of the dugouts before most teams, said in May they plan to have it reach another 100 feet or so, almost to the foul poles, in their new park scheduled to open next season.

Rangers executive vice president Rob Matwick said in an interview with ESPN that, despite the oft-heard arguments against increased netting -- that fans don't want obstructed views and do want to be able to catch foul balls and interact with players -- the Rangers' experience to date is instructive. "Initially there was some customer pushback, but I think we've been able to overcome that over time. Once fans adjusted and got used to it, we really haven't had any issues."

A national poll conducted by ESPN found that 78 percent of fans favor increased netting.

Matwick also said improvements in the netting over the years are a key factor: "The netting that we use today really does a pretty good job of blending into the background when you look through."

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The original impetus for netting extensions during Manfred's tenure was a gruesome scene in 2015, his first year on the job. Tonya Carpenter, a woman seated between the backstop and the third-base dugout at Fenway Park, was hit in the head and bloodied by a broken bat. She was wheeled out on a stretcher and taken to a Boston hospital to undergo emergency brain surgery.

Manfred then ordered MLB to study fan safety. Following that study's completion -- and other fan injuries that season, including at Fenway -- he issued a recommendation of netting extensions to the near ends of the dugouts. All teams complied by the start of the 2016 season.

MLB hasn't revealed the results of that 2015 study, or other information it has since compiled on the subject. Manfred said at his June briefing that MLB has gathered data on fan injuries for the past three to four years, but when asked by ESPN why the league hasn't released it, he said, "We collect all sorts of data that we don't release to the public. That's sort of the way people do business in America. We make no secret of fan incidents, usually the public is there when it happens."

In a May 15, 2019, affidavit obtained by ESPN, a high-ranking MLB official said details of the 2015 safety study are "privileged" and should be kept confidential. The affidavit was submitted in connection with an ongoing lawsuit filed by a fan who lost his vision in one eye after he was struck by a foul ball at Wrigley Field in 2017.

MLB and its teams have leaned on the so-called "Baseball Rule" to discourage or defeat litigation over injuries on balls or bats landing in the stands. Since 1913, every ticket to an MLB game has contained a disclaimer saying fans assume all the risks inherent to the game.

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Manfred said in June that MLB believes the baseballs in use this season have less drag, a factor in the surge in home runs and in reducing the time that fans have to react to foul balls headed toward them. He said scientists retained by MLB are working to determine what has caused the change.

On June 27, Illinois's two U.S. Senators wrote Manfred a letter saying, "MLB and every team should expedite plans to extend netting to further protect fans. As several teams have demonstrated, these safety improvements don't have to wait until next season." In his June 28 response letter, obtained by ESPN, Manfred wrote, "Over the past several years, our Clubs have vastly increased the amount of protective netting -- and, as a result, the inventory of available seats behind protective netting -- in their ballparks. I am continuing to encourage Clubs to go even further, while taking into account the structural variations in the ballparks."

A Bloomberg News study in 2014 found that 1,750 fans a year were injured by foul balls, but stadium netting has been significantly extended since then. Manfred said at the June briefing the extensions have made fans safer because the netting is blocking balls, and fewer are reaching the stands -- but he said he couldn't be any more precise than that. A league source who spoke to ESPN on the condition of anonymity said MLB has data on foul balls and has team-provided figures on fan injuries, but not statistics on the connection between the two.

Last August, Linda Goldbloom was seated in the loge behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, just above netting. A foul ball struck her in the head and she suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. The Goldbloom family has since been advocating for longer and higher netting. After the fan was struck Dodger Stadium last month, the team announced that it had already begun a study of possible adjustments to its netting.

Jacobson, who said his daughter is recovering nicely from her 2017 injuries, has also been outspoken about extended netting at parks.

"People are coming, taking their families to watch a sporting event," Jacobson said. "There shouldn't be a fear of getting hurt or getting killed.

"Sadly right now, part of the story is that more people have gotten hurt and another little girl just like her has been injured," Jacobson said. "And you can only pray that that girl's story has as good of an ending as my daughter's story."

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