By Mary Helen Sprecher

Play ball . . . safely.

To nobody’s great surprise, Major League Baseball in December announced new recommendations concerning safety netting at its ballparks. This came on the heels of a particularly bad 2015 baseball season in which fans were struck by everything from batted balls to flying shrapnel from broken bats. [Editor’s note: already in 2016 a fan was struck by a batted ball in Tampa Bay; the team has added extra netting.]

The wording used by MLB was less than strong, however; to wit:

“After an in-depth study, Major League Baseball has recommended that all teams should lengthen the safety netting at their ballparks to increase fan safety. …Teams will be encouraged to add netting, or some sort of protective barrier, to shield fans from balls and bats that sometimes go into the stands in all field-level seats between the near ends of both dugouts and within 70 feet of home plate.”

So while it wasn’t actually a rule, per se, it was a recommendation. But given the fact that it’s easier to take visible steps to prevent an injury than to deal with the aftermath of one, it’s not a surprise that many ball clubs have endorsed the measure, which you’ll be seeing this season. In fact, Minor League Baseball has thrown its support behind the recommendation as well.

The question, of course, is whether it’ll be followed at lower levels than just MLB and MiLB. After all, as sports facilities become ever more sophisticated, with college, high school and even Little League fields increasing in scope and in number of amenities, it’s a fair question.

Problem is, nobody is committing to a statement. On the other hand, field builders and suppliers of equipment, who have the inside track on the industry, have been able to share some insights on the issue.

Josh Hicks of Promats Athletics notes, for example, that his company, a division of Sportsfield Specialties in Delhi, NY has seen an uptick in inquiries about safety netting.

“Promats has quite a few Minor League Baseball teams interested in expanding their ball safety netting,” he notes. “There are also many colleges making plans to install safety netting, often in conjunction with renovation and construction projects. I see a consistent recognition that there is value in providing spectators with additional safety at all levels of play.”

One of the concerns on the MLB side has been decreased viewing ability for spectators who are seated behind netting. An article on the MLB website noted this. Trying to combine safety with a positive fan experience may take a balancing act, particularly in the first year.

“We understand that our fans differ in their opinions about sitting behind protective netting and we will do our best to accommodate those different preferences,” Phillies executive vice president and chief operating officer Mike Stiles said. “We anticipate that [this] will require us to expand our protective netting behind home plate about 10 feet in width on both sides, reaching to the near side of each dugout. We also plan to replace all of our existing netting with newer material, which is as strong but thinner and more easily viewed through.”

In addition, ball clubs will likely need to indicate in the seat selection function of their websites which seats are behind netting and which are not.

“Major League Baseball prides itself on providing fans in our ballparks with unparalleled proximity and access to our players and the game taking place on the field,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said on the MLB site. “At the same time, it is important that fans have the option to sit behind protective netting or in other areas of the ballpark where foul balls and bats are less likely to enter.”

But since many fans consider the ability to catch balls and even interact with players to be part of the baseball experience, the new safety regulations will be, at best, a work in progress.

Hicks notes that a safety audit should be done periodically by facilities, particularly in light of the new recommendations.

“For MLB and MiLB baseball applications, safety netting should be a minimum of 30 feet high and extend to the end of each dugout,” he notes. “This would also be applicable for a lot of Division I venues where spectators are seated behind the dugouts. In venues with smaller programs, fans usually sit behind the backstop. In these cases backstop netting is sufficient.”

At some lower level facilities, where several sports share common areas, other types of safety issues come into play. Megan Buczynski, PE, LEED AP, of Activitas Inc., Dedham, MA says that youth fields should be checked for safety.

“Where we do see a great demand for safety netting is in track and field facilities when track and lacrosse are both vying for field time in the spring. In a few facilities we have installed 10-feet high netting around the inside perimeter of the track to provide a barrier between the track and the field. This allows the school or institution the ability to hold practices at similar times. There are certainly considerations and construct ability considerations for using this type of system, but we have seen it used very successfully from a range of clients.”

And, notes Matt Moyse of Sportsfield Specialties, that comes into play even more in the case of throwing events.

“Protective cages are required for discuss and hammer, but we do have requests for extensions in locations where throwing events interact with other activities at the facility. In regards to batting cages, we recommend installing netting at least on the home side of the baseball/softball facility.”

In some ways, the netting issue is a bit like helmet issues in bicycling or other sports – for everyone who acknowledges the need for safety, there will be someone else who chafes at the restrictions they add.

Mary Helen Sprecher is a free lance writer associated with the American Sports Builders Association, which sponsors meetings and publishes newsletters, books and technical construction guidelines for athletic facilities. 866-501-2722 or www.sportsbuilders.org

 

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