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Expanded screens are (probably) coming, and they’re (definitely) fine

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The benefits outweigh the costs

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Todd Frazier smoked a line drive into the seats above the third-base dugout in Yankee Stadium. The line drive was clocked at 106, and it found the head of a young girl.

The New York Times’ account was pretty ghastly.

According to a Yankee Stadium paramedic, who was not authorized to publicly discuss fan injuries, the girl appeared to have been struck by the ball in the nose and right eye and was bleeding when she was carried by her grandfather to a first aid station behind the stands.

“That was a screaming line drive,” said Tom Barton, a fan from San Francisco who said he was seated three rows behind the girl.

“I just wanted to cry for this little kid,” he added. “There was so much blood.”

The status of the girl is not entirely clear.

The 2-year-old girl stayed in the hospital overnight for observation but is expected to be OK.

"She's doing alright, just keep her in your thoughts," the victim's father said.

The incident renewed the calls for expanded protective netting, which teams like the Reds, Rockies, Padres and Mariners have already heeded in response. More than half the league has not followed suit, which includes the White Sox. Columnists like Jeff Passan and Bob Nightengale are calling them out.

Obscene amounts of money go toward ballpark experience and ambience and amenities, and because courts of law have upheld that the disclaimer on the back of tickets indemnifies teams from balls and bats whirring into the stands, they treat safety as if it’s of no concern. This is more than negligence. It is the witting abdication of moral responsibility. It is in every sense of the word shameful.

Shame on the Los Angeles Dodgers. Shame on the San Diego Padres. Shame on the Colorado Rockies. Shame on the Arizona Diamondbacks. Shame on the San Francisco Giants. Shame on the Cincinnati Reds. Shame on the Chicago Cubs. Shame on the Milwaukee Brewers. Shame on the Miami Marlins. Shame on the Los Angeles Angels. Shame on the Oakland A’s. Shame on the Seattle Mariners. Shame on the Cleveland Indians. Shame on the Detroit Tigers. Shame on the Chicago White Sox. Shame on the Toronto Blue Jays. Shame on the Boston Red Sox. Shame on the Baltimore Orioles. Shame on the Tampa Bay Rays. And shame on the New York Yankees, who witnessed Wednesday why it’s such an obscene dereliction of duty that 20 teams still refuse to get onboard with something that should’ve been required well over a decade ago.

For the time being, Sox spokesman Scott Reifert said the team expanded the netting to meet MLB’s new guidelines for the area between the dugouts in 2016, and he expects it to be a topic of conversation in the offseason.

The players have wanted it for a while, which makes sense. Their reaction to foul balls was among the many differences I noticed in the zero-attendance game in Baltimore a couple years ago. With no fans in the stands, once a player knew his batted ball was tracking foul, he didn’t watch where it ended up. During a regular game, they’ll follow it all the way out of curiosity and concern.

The fans — at least the most vocal segment of fans -- don’t. There’s a standard reaction from the standard-issue baseball fans (male, bound by tradition) on Twitter and Facebook that includes upwards of four factors.

  1. The ticket says you assume the risk.
  2. Fans need to pay attention.
  3. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to sit that close, and shame on the parents.
  4. Some boring ad hominem about a nanny state or millennials.

I understand this response to a degree, because this used to be my attitude, although for specific reasons. Excessive screening interfered with my ability to capture clean photos and videos for my work, which was kind of a pain. Kannapolis, Winston-Salem and other stadiums have netting extended over and past the dugouts, and getting shots without a screen in between requires a bit of a hike and a better telephoto lens.

On the rare occasions I sat close enough for screaming line drives to matter without worrying about content, I prided myself on knowing the deal -- one can’t always be on alert, but make sure to pay attention when in the potential path of a pull hitter. I’d watch small children with their backs to the field and parents chatting amongst themselves and mentally castigate them for their irresponsibility.

A few incidents over the year have changed my mind.

I went to a couple Charlotte Knights games in Allentown, Pa. Sitting in an aisle seat at the far edge of a third base dugout, I dodged a line drive in the first game with a reverse-crunch move. The ball smacked off the concrete beneath my seat and down the row, nobody was hurt and some kid got the ball. A job well done. Kudos, me.

A day later, I saw a woman take a line drive to the forehead. The sound of baseball against skull — it’s in the Venn diagram overlap between “loud thud” and “dulled smack” — was the same one I heard when I got smoked by a line drive above the ear on the pitcher’s mound as a teenager. (I heard it more than I felt it. I only felt it when I tried to stand up, which was a bad idea.)

That incident shifted my outlook, because at least two of the reflexive arguments didn’t apply.

  1. The ticket says you assume the risk. (Yes.)
  2. Fans need to pay attention. (Maybe she was.)
  3. Kids shouldn’t be allowed to sit that close, and shame on the parents. (It’s a minor league park. There aren’t that many places to sit that aren’t close to the field.)

It didn’t immediately change my attitude at major league parks, since there are upper deck seats and outfield seats where those afraid of loud foul balls can sit. But then I remember sitting down the third-base line near a season-ticket-holding couple at Coors Field, both of whom wore baseball gloves. After a hard line drive scattered some fans 15 rows away, they told me that’s why they brought their gloves every game. They had too many close calls.

And it’s not just foul balls. There was that incident at Fenway Park where the woman got brained by a broken bat that traveled in the opposite direction of the ball. There was the time the woman caught Tyler Flowers’ bat at U.S. Cellular Field, potentially saving a baby behind her.

Add enough of these up, and I no longer mind the netting. I probably prefer none over the dugouts, but I also stopped caring enough to make a difference. There are plenty of ways to lose focus at a baseball game without even bringing phones or gender stereotypes into it. A serious-minded baseball fan might see a piece of trivia on the scoreboard that sets off a chain of serious-minded baseball discussion with several serious-minded baseball tangents, only to be snapped out of it by the reaction of surrounding fans to a batted ball targeting the section.

That doesn’t even get into the part about teams encouraging phone usage for in-game promotion. And it doesn’t get to the part about baseball’s aging-fan problem. The sport needs more kids to be baseball fans, yet under current customs, they shouldn’t be allowed to sit close to the field, where it has a better chance of keeping their attention.

Plus, “you assume the risk” is a very strange default stance to take regarding an activity that is supposed to be leisure, especially among those assuming the risk. Sometimes people go to great lengths to stay aggrieved.

My feeling is that if the White Sox just up and extended the netting over the dugouts in an inobtrusive way -- a sleek screen that can be retracted before and after games — some fans would be very mad. Given a week or a month, they’d stop being very mad, because what are they going to do? Pick worse seats?

Not likely. So they’d get used to it. Maybe they’d even be able to relax, which might help with the anger issues.