The Ballpark Netting Debate Is Back

Last Wednesday, Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. hit a foul ball. That is not an unusual occurrence at a baseball game, except that this particular foul ball hit a four-year-old girl in the stands. Almora, quite understandably, was visibly shaken.

Unsurprisingly, the incident ignited another round of debate over a topic we first discussed last year: protective netting at ballparks. Brian Johnson, a former major league catcher and current scout for the San Francisco Giants, told CNN’s Jeff Pearlman that the existence of seats without netting is like building cars without seat belts. But, as we discussed last year, the law doesn’t see it that way:

As explained in the Restatement [of Torts], there exists in the law a doctrine called “assumption of the risk.” In the context of baseball, that basically means that if you sit in an area without protective netting and you know it’s a possibility that a foul ball might come your way, you can’t sue the team for getting injured by that foul ball. As one court put it in a case called Edward C. v. City of Albuquerque, a fan ‘must exercise ordinary care to protect himself or herself from the inherent risk of being hit by a projectile’ — even if that projectile is traveling upwards of 100 mph.

There’s a really excellent write-up on this that you can read here. In short, however, this “baseball rule” represents the majority rule in the United States. If a foul ball comes your way at a ballpark, the law basically says you should have seen it coming. You’ll probably find language on your ticket saying you assume the risk of injury by foul ball, like the Yankees have on theirs.

What the law says, in essence, is that if you’re injured by a foul ball and there isn’t netting in front of your seat, it’s your fault. If you’re injured by a foul ball and there is netting, it becomes the team’s fault to the extent the netting didn’t suffice to block the foul ball. This seemingly counterintuitive rule, however, doesn’t make sense in an age of unprecedented fastball speeds and batted ball exit velocities, where fan injuries from foul balls are on the rise. The most commonly cited statistic, 1,750 batted ball injuries per season, would make these injuries more common than batters being hit by pitches.

Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer is also a proponent of expanded netting for this reason. In an interview with 670 The Score, he said:

“You’re not paying attention all the time. The balls are going faster and harder than ever. There’s just no way to react. Our fielders can barely react at times with a hard line drive. To expect a parent or a kid to react to a ball that flies into the stands, it’s not realistic. I think that shouldn’t be part of going to a game. Going to a game should be about spending time with the family and being entertaining and watching these great athletes. The idea of getting hurt should not be at all be a part of the equation.

When the ball is on a line close to the dugouts or beyond the dugouts, there’s just no time to react. I think we have to admit that and realize it. I’d always be in support of netting that area.”

And Hoyer is on to something here: as FanGraphs’ own Nathaniel Grow discussed last year, fans simply don’t have enough time to react to foul balls, especially because seats are closer to the field now than they’ve ever been before:

At 110 miles per hour, a spectator seated sixty feet from home plate would have just four-tenths of a second to react to a foul ball, giving even those fans paying extremely close attention to the action on the field virtually no chance of avoiding injury. Indeed, at four-tenths of a second the hypothetical fan described above would actually have less time to react than MLB batters have to avoid being hit by a 95 mile-per-hour fastball. If elite professional athletes of this caliber are often unable to get out of the way of such a fast-moving projectile, it should come as no surprise that fan injuries from foul balls have become even more common occurrences than batters being hit by a pitch in recent years.

Now, to be fair, before the 2018 major league season, Major League Baseball issued new netting guidelines, specifically including that netting should extend at least as far as each team’s dugout. However, as USA Today noted last week, netting lengths still vary by franchise, with the Baltimore Orioles providing the most protection (three sections past the dugouts in the outfield).

In light of last week’s incident, there groundswell has been a groundswell of support for netting that extends down the entirety of each foul line – from behind home plate to the foul pole in each corner – as it does in professional leagues in Japan and Korea. But this idea isn’t new. The MLBPA has been attempting to include this as a provision in collective bargaining agreements since 2007.

I asked our resident KBO and NPB connoisseur, Sung Min Kim, about netting in the KBO. He told me that, as far as the KBO is concerned, the netting was a problem because fans used to climb it in an effort to get on the field:

“At the Jamsil Stadium [where the LG Twins and Doosan Bears play], they lowered the net from eight meters to three meters on the infield to improve the sightline, and they instituted facility workers to blow whistles every time a batted ball comes into the stands, but this is a long time ago. They still do have whistle blowers in ballgames, but I’m not sure if they have the same height. I actually doubt it. I think it’s entirely possible that they made the nets taller again. The ones I’ve seen look most definitely taller than three meters.”

He was right, of course. Jamsil Stadium raised the net height last year; the SK Wyverns also raised raised their net height, to nine meters.

In NPB, the extensive netting is not a result of league mandate, but of a court decision after a woman injured by a foul ball sued the Nippon Ham Fighters:

Japanese baseball officials appear headed for the trenches after a court’s unprecedented decision to force a team to compensate a female spectator who was blinded in one eye when she was hit by a line drive at a ballgame. The decision handed down by the Sapporo District Court on March 26, the day before the regular season got under way, ordered the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters professional baseball team, Sapporo Dome Co. and the city of Sapporo to pay the woman, who has asked to remain nameless, about ¥41.9 million (about $350,000). Although there have been similar incidents in the past of fans being hurt by foul balls and suing teams, this time an example is being made of the Hokkaido-based club with ramifications that are causing baseball clubs to take note, in what most of them view as a critical indictment of their sport.

“It was a tragic accident but I was shocked when I saw that decision,” Chiba Lotte Marines president Shinya Yamamuro recently told Kyodo News. In the ruling, Presiding Judge Yasuhiro Hasegawa noted that the area above the almost 3-meter tall fence for the infield stands was not furnished with protective netting.

The key aspect of the court’s ruling was that “simply warning spectators to be careful of foul balls by making public service announcements or on the large screen panels is not enough.” This was significant, because Japanese law had previously accepted a variation of the same “baseball rule” that American courts had enforced. Contractually, Japanese courts had believed, fans assumed the risk of injury by attending the game. The decision against the Nippon Ham Fighters changed the calculus for teams, with one Japanese baseball official sarcastically telling the Japan Times that “[I]f we continue to have court orders for compensation of large sums like this we’ll end up having to cover up stadiums to their ceilings in bulletproof glass.” That didn’t happen, but now every NPB stadium has netting extending all the way to each foul pole. Ironically, however, NPB teams are increasingly offering “exciting seats” without that netting, where spectators are encouraged, but not required, to wear helmets.

Meanwhile, minor league games continue to have netting largely limited to behind the plate. On Saturday, a young child was seriously injured by a foul ball launched into the stands during an Indianapolis Indians game. The boy was taken to the hospital, and no updates were available on his condition. The baseball rule, however, remains the law of the land even as courts have declined to follow it in instances, like those involving t-shirt cannons.

We hoped you liked reading The Ballpark Netting Debate Is Back by Sheryl Ring!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

newest oldest most voted
bartonlsmith
Member
bartonlsmith

I wouldn’t all it a debate. It’s much more like proponents of more netting calling anyone who questions the idea heartless, idiot, argumentative, etc. I think this issue offers the opportunity for commenters to feel like they’ve struck an important blow for child safety without leaving their chair.

drewsylvania
Member
Member
drewsylvania

Cool story, bro.

Mike NMN
Member
Mike NMN

Do you have a position on the merits of more netting? As opposed to a position on the proponents of more netting?

bartonlsmith
Member
bartonlsmith

I am no longer engaging in this discussion. I’d sooner take up a twitter debate on abortion or immigration. The nets are coming, and I’ll be fine with that.

William
Member
Member
William

You didn’t engage in any discussion.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

there’s no point in having a position on the merits because people are not treating this as a decision about netting, they are treating this like pretty much all “discussions” are treated these days: as in-group/out-group litmus tests.

Shirtless George Brett
Member
Shirtless George Brett

Maybe thats because extending the netting is such an obviously good idea with little to no downside and massive upside that anyone arguing against it is being disingenuous or an idiot. Or both.

I mean, honestly. What is the argument against more netting?

HappyFunBall
Member
Member
HappyFunBall

Claims about the ruination of sitelines and the general deterioration of America’s collective toughness.

akgerman
Member
akgerman

moral hazard and taking away all responsibility of the seated customer. a popup goes over the netting and someone is not paying attention, they can now sue. so, then we need netting on the top of the fans. what happens if that’s not extended far enough and a ball gets through? you can see where it goes..what happens if a ball goes for a home run hits a fan? need netting out there too now. the piece appropriately points out, once netting is in place, it has to be 100% or the stadium is liable. by that point ,we’re all better off watching from home…

JDX
Member
JDX

I wonder what a 100% netted stadium would look like.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

Its called a batting cage!

IDrinkYourMilkshake
Member
IDrinkYourMilkshake

I think what isn’t being emphasized enough is that there are probably different injury risks associated with different batted ball events (e.g. injury caused from a fly ball vs a line drive/flying bat).

Knowing that fans will probably never be 100% protected (unless nets/protective bubbles are placed everywhere), isn’t it still worth attempting to eliminate the worst instances, however rare?

The argument that more fans would get hit by balls from not paying attention is kinda weak IMO, but isn’t this scenario still favorable if the extent of their injuries are lessened?

IDrinkYourMilkshake
Member
IDrinkYourMilkshake

Not a race fan, but if NASCAR racetracks have to carry liability insurance, wondering how this is so different from attending a baseball game?

Skin Blues
Member
Member
Skin Blues

“Anybody who disagrees with me is an idiot”

This is the discourse of modern progressives.

HappyFunBall
Member
Member
HappyFunBall

Actually, it’s the discourse of people who are uninterested in examining their own views of the world, regardless of what they might be.

More than a bit of it on all ends of the political spectrum

drewsylvania
Member
Member
drewsylvania

100%. It’s reached the point where I start to seriously consider going back to a flip phone instead of lizard-braining to the adrenaline derp rush.

Shirtless George Brett
Member
Shirtless George Brett

“I have an opinion so therefore it must be valid even if its absurd and based on pretty much nothing”

This is the discourse of irrational people on the internet.

dukewinslow
Member
dukewinslow

to be fair, the hazard of people getting hit with a foul ball, despite recent examples, is pretty minute to the point of being almost nothing. Just from a “how often does it happen” and conditional on “when it does happen, is there an injury”- the number of events is very small. Perhaps small enough to not even justify the cost of nets. Even a brief consideration of the probability of injury and costs to defray that probability isn’t particularly absurd. That’s hardly nothing, and it’s not worth spewing insults over an
argument that’s so close to top of mind.

That being said, put the damn nets up (that is, I reject the cost benefit argument against nets on moral grounds, not really cost benefit grounds). If people stay home, they stay home.

The moral hazard argument isn’t a bad one, though.

kbtoys
Member
kbtoys

The moral hazard argument isn’t a good one, though, unless you’re arguing for no nets anywhere. If it’s the responsibility of the fans sitting on the foul lines to avoid 100+ MPH liners, then it should also be the responsibility of the fans directly behind the plate to avoid foul tips. If you disagree with that statement, then your moral hazard argument already folds.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

“Moral hazard” isn’t the right term here. That would be like if we were worried that the safety of a net would prevent people from looking where they were going and crashing into each other or something. Like how one might worry that seatbelts could cause more reckless driving.

HappyFunBall
Member
Member
HappyFunBall

Moral hazard is a fine term. You just have to realize that what it means is that the commenter making it is complaining more about the infantilization of the crowd than about the netting itself. Mature, responsible people who pay attention to the game instead of their phones don’t need a net in front of their face. Erecting one is tolerating such behavior.

Ryan DC
Member
Member
Ryan DC

How is the “infantilization of the crowd” a moral hazard? That makes no sense unless you think people checking their phones during a baseball game is immoral.

HappyFunBall
Member
Member
HappyFunBall

Well, given that other comments in this thread are making that very argument I feel secure in my statement that this is a position some are taking.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

It’s definitely the discourse of pretty much anyone who discusses anything online, progressive or anti-progressive. I was listening to this fascinating story about the Russian troll bots. People think it was all fake news. Actually a lot of it was creating groups that encouraged these strong identity associations, whether it was identifying as black LGBT or white Texas conservatives, didn’t matter, the point was to get people into groupthink as much as possible. And it’s working.

Greg Simons
Member
Greg Simons

And conservatives, and everyone in between, if you’re going to start stereotyping.

jdfree49
Member
jdfree49

You’re right, but most FG readers are, for some reason, “progressives”, so enjoy your downvotes.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

because going to a game and sitting where there’s a chance of getting a foul ball is exciting. look at all the people who currently sit in these “danger zones”. how many of them are scared vs. excited about a ball coming their way?

does this outweigh the safety concern? down the line, I’d say no. but what about in the bleachers? someone could get hurt by a home run ball too, but the risk is lower, and the chance of catching a home run is worth the risk to us.

I totally get why most people agree to expand netting, but what I don’t get is why people think there’s no conversation to be had, no sliding scale.

bartonlsmith
Member
bartonlsmith

Bingo. What people keep telling me is that there is no valid argument on the side of not putting up nets. My preference for not having a net is not valid. I agree my preference may not be the point, but don’t tell me I don’t enjoy the game more without the net.

RoyalsFan#14321
Member
RoyalsFan#14321

I’ll take a stab at the against…

I find that my eyes tend to re-focus on the netting regularly, such that I miss the action when I’m sitting within about 10-15 feet or so of the net. In the seats that happens, I guess I’m mostly glad that I had the net, but it does distract.

Luy
Member
Luy

I’m not sure why bartonlsmith is getting downvoted.

Take a look at the responses to anyone who is even mildly anti-netting. It’s pretty clear that there is only one “right” answer in most folks minds.

bartonlsmith
Member
bartonlsmith

It’s because I am stupid, arrogant, and heartless. Had a great interaction with Keith Law the other day on this topic. He went 0-60 on me in 2 words.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

Keith Law is smart and sometimes insightful but I’m basically not a fan of him because he is so intolerant of disagreement. He wrote a book that took it’s name from a term he uses (smrtbaseball) that is basically just a way of calling people stupid.

TKDC
Member
Member
TKDC

bartonlsmitb is being downvoted for bringing up wedge political issues that have nothing to do with the topic. He says he doesn’t want to discuss, but this is not true based on the simple fact that he is commenting.

The other highly downvoted comment above makes generalizations about the comments while literally being the very first comment. Amazing, obnoxiously putting people down makes them not like you. But at least you get to feel superior, somehow.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

despite the down votes, I totally agree with this comment. the thing is, I agree with expanded netting. but then I see the same level of groupthink on the pro-netting that I see on any mainstream political issue, and that bothers me way more than just about any anti-netting take.

HappyFunBall
Member
Member
HappyFunBall

The argument against netting is, essentially, cost. Cost that, like any other, will be passed along to the ticket buyers in as much portion as the market will bear.

On the one hand, there are folks who are aghast that cost should ever be an impediment in the way of safety. This is a fine, albeit terribly idealistic, point of view.

On the other there are folks who say that no matter where you draw the cost/safety line, there will always be some accident that would have been preventable if you moved the line just a bit more. And if perfect safety is unachievable, reducing enjoyment of the game (through obstructed views, higher prices, etc…) is a bridge too far. This is also a fine, if terribly alarmist, point of view.

bartonlsmith
Member
bartonlsmith

That’s what’s amazing to me. Here’s a minor issue in sports. It makes you realize how hopeless any discussion on anything important is.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

You may have just created a self-fulfilling prophecy with your comment here.

bartonlsmith
Member
bartonlsmith

That could be