By James Reese
Program Director, Sports Management, American Public University
Washington Nationals star pitcher Stephen Strasburg was recently sent down to the minors for a rehabilitation assignment. That idea was to prepare Strasburg to return to the Nats’ mound after a bout with right shoulder inflammation. As luck would have it, Strasburg wound up pitching for the Class A Potomac Nationals because the Nationals’ higher minor league affiliates were not in action on the night that my family and I had the good fortune to be in attendance.
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We were among the more than 4,400 fans who showed up at Calvin Falwell Field for the standing-room-only game. We sat in $10.00 general admission seats about seven rows behind the Potomac Nats’ dugout. To say the experience was a family-friendly bargain would be an understatement.
Strasburg was effective, throwing 57 pitches over 3 and 1/3 innings. He allowed two hits and hit 96 mph on the stadium radar gun several times.
The electric atmosphere at the stadium due to Strasburg’s presence was not what I believe was the most important aspect of the evening. What I noticed was how easily fans could have been injured without the presence of protective netting.
2014 Study Shows Balls or Bats Flying into Stands Injure over 1,700 Fans Each Year
A Bloomberg study conducted in 2014 estimated that 1,750 fans are injured at Major League Baseball stadiums each year. However, the study also revealed that the majority of those injuries were minor, such as bruises and bloodied lips.
Unfortunately, a serious injury does happen from time to time, not only from foul baseballs hit into the stands. Occasionally, a bat or a broken part of a bat will fly out of the hitter’s hands and strike a fan in the seats.
Baseball Executives Recommended Extending Protective Safety Nets
At the end of 2015, Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred and Minor League Baseball (MilB) President Pat O’Conner issued recommendations that all teams consider extending the safety netting behind the home plate backstop area to at least the far end of the team dugouts along the first and third baselines. Previously, the netting extended from behind home plate only to the near edges of the two dugouts. In response to the recommendations, the Lynchburg Hillcats extended their netting to the far ends of both dugouts at the start of the 2017 season, one year after the Washington Nationals extended their netting at Nationals Park.
I’ve been to numerous major and minor league games since those recommendations were issued, but I never sat in a location protected by the extended netting until that Tuesday when Strasburg was on the mound. I saw at least three line drives hit the extended netting; these were balls that previously would have landed in the seats and potentially injure someone.
Around the stadium, I saw fans looking down at their smartphones, totally oblivious to the action on the field and the danger of balls or bats flying into the stands. That’s when the necessity of the extended netting really sank in for me.
Although we were sitting behind the protective netting, I was momentarily distracted on several occasions when I heard the crack of the bat. Had I been sitting beyond the netting, I knew there would not have been enough time for me to refocus on a fast-moving ball or twirling bat coming at me.
When I emailed MiLB President O’Conner about my experience, he quickly responded. “The safety and security of our fans is a top priority,” O’Conner said. “Allowing fans to enjoy minor league baseball in a safe environment only enhances the enjoyment for the entire family.”
I couldn’t agree more. When the game ended, it dawned on me that the netting in front of me did not diminish my view of the game or devalue our fan experience in any way. I suspect that might have been one of the concerns professional baseball administrators had when they discussed extending the safety netting.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I rarely have seats good enough at Major League parks to worry about line drives or flying bats. However, that’s a different story at the smaller minor league parks where the seats are up close and personal. After our recent experience, our family feels much safer now at Calvin Falwell Field and we plan to attend more games there.
About the Author
Dr. Jim Reese is the director of the undergraduate and graduate Sports Management programs at American Public University (APU). Before beginning his academic career, Dr. Reese served as a ticketing administrator for the Denver Broncos, where he was involved in the ticket planning and execution for Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. He works as an industry consultant in ticket operations and ticket sales. Dr. Reese also volunteers as an interscholastic athletic assistant and serves on the board of directors for his local youth baseball league.