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Why it’s ‘staggering’ that baseball hasn’t done more to protect fans from foul balls

Baseball may be America’s pastime, but it’s facing renewed scrutiny over the safety of its spectators after recent incidents involving fans being hit by foul balls. Some professional teams are extending protective netting in response, but Major League Baseball itself has so far declined to change its requirements overall. John Yang talks to ESPN baseball columnist Jeff Passan for analysis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A second sports story tonight, but of a different nature.

    Major League Baseball is at its halfway point for the season, marked by the annual All-Star Game last night.

    Even as players are smashing a record pace of home runs this season, John Yang looks at lingering questions around the league about other line-drive hits that injure fans.

  • John Yang:

    It was the annual showcase of baseball's best players. But amid the fanfare of last night's game in Cleveland, the league is facing renewed questions about ballpark safety, sparked by a number of dangerous incidents this year.

    Perhaps the most prominent was in May, when a 2-year-old girl was struck in Houston. The ball came off the bat of Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, who was visibly shaken.

  • Albert Almora:

    I'm at a loss of words being a father of two boys. Obviously, I want to put a net around the whole stadium, but, man, I don't know. I'm sorry.

  • John Yang:

    A lawyer for the girl's family said she suffered bleeding and swelling in her brain.

    A 2014 Bloomberg News analysis estimated that more than 1,700 fans are hurt each year by foul balls, home runs and some broken bats during games and batting practice. Last August, a 79-year-old woman was killed by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. That was even after all Major League teams extended protective netting to the far ends of the dugouts.

    As for future net extensions, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has said he doesn't expect teams to change their netting until at least the end of this season.

    In June, he said: "We do have fans that are vocal about the fact that they don't want to sit behind nets. I think that we have struck the balance in favor of fan safety so far."

    Still, a number of teams have announced plans to extend their netting. This week, the Chicago White Sox began installing nets from foul pole to foul pole.

    In addition to the White Sox, the Washington Nationals are in the process of extending protective netting. Both teams say the added protection will be in place for their next home games later this month.

    Jeff Passan covers baseball for ESPN. He joins us now.

    Jeff, thanks so much.

    This incident in Houston in May, this is not a new phenomenon. As we say, the woman actually died at Dodger Stadium last year.

    Why did this incident in Houston become the catalyst for this discussion now?

  • Jeff Passan:

    I think it was because a small child was the one involved in this.

    I was down on the field that day. I was about 25 feet away from Albert Almora when he hit that ball. And you could see almost instantaneously he saw it going for the girl, and it's like his eyes lasered in on her. And when he saw it hit her, he was crestfallen. He was heartbroken.

    The whole stadium went silent. And right after the game that day, Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs star, says to me, "We need netting around the whole stadium."

    Albert Almora follows by saying that, Kyle Schwarber. The entire Chicago Cubs team is saying, this is a problem. We don't want to be the people causing these sorts of injuries.

    And it's significant, I think, that you say the Washington Nationals are doing it and the Chicago White Sox. The Chicago Cubs haven't done it yet. Houston Astros haven't done it yet. Those are the two teams that were involved that day.

    And the paucity of teams coming and saying, we're going to make this a priority really is staggering.

  • John Yang:

    And I want to make — follow up on that point, because you say the netting is going up only in a handful of ballparks.

    Why are teams so reluctant to take this step?

  • Jeff Passan:

    I wish I had a good answer.

    I have asked clubs. I asked the commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, yesterday that very question: Why haven't you, as the person who is the shepherd of this sport, as the person who's in charge of selling this game to fans, and saying, we want ballparks to be safe, we want your experience to be great, why haven't you said to teams, everyone is going to put up netting at some point?

    Why don't we just get that out there right now? And I'll be honest. There are no good answers. And that's the part of it that I really still don't understand, how a grouping of companies in Major League Baseball that are worth about $40 billion, when you put them all together, can put themselves at risk for this bad of public relations, and the fact that we're even talking about this still a month-plus after it happened.

  • John Yang:

    Manfred in this piece talked about fan resistance.

    But the most expensive seats in most ballparks are behind the plate, which are covered by netting. And the NHL has now had netting up behind the goals since the 2002-2003 season. And it's had no effect.

    What do you make of that?

  • Jeff Passan:

    It is a giant ocean of illogic.

    The idea that these remarkably expensive seats that go for $1,000 have a worse view because of some netting than seats that would be on the side, it's just not true. Your eyes adjust. Anybody who has sat behind netting before knows that.

    What it is, is there are a few people out there still who want to catch foul balls. That's what this comes down to. When you're in a baseball stadium, balls get hit into the stands, and it is some people's dream to catch a foul ball.

    And to all of those people, I ask the question — and this is not a rhetorical question — I ask the question, would you rather go and spend $5 or $10 for a stamped official Major League Baseball or watch a child get hurt?

    That is the value proposition we're talking about right here. And I understand catching a foul ball is a great experience and all. But if I'm trying to balance a kid or an adult or anyone potentially getting hurt with catching a foul ball, I don't think that's a very difficult choice to make.

  • John Yang:

    Jeff Passan of ESPN, thanks so much.

  • Jeff Passan:

    Thanks for having me.

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