John McGrath

John McGrath: Hey, baseball, don’t let it take a tragedy to keep fans safe

A woman is carried from the Wrigley Field stands on a stretcher after being hit a by a line-drive foul ball during the first inning of the Cubs-Braves game in Chicago on Sunday.
A woman is carried from the Wrigley Field stands on a stretcher after being hit a by a line-drive foul ball during the first inning of the Cubs-Braves game in Chicago on Sunday. The Associated Press

During a typical major league baseball game, between 35 and 40 balls are hit into the stands. Most of these balls are fouls, often retrieved by a father who then exchanges high-fives with nearby fans before presenting the souvenir to his child.

Their smiles, as seen on TV, are precious.

But there are other foul balls that do not make for such sweet moments, and those foul balls are fraught with consequences unfit for a family audience.

On Sunday, during an otherwise lovely afternoon at Wrigley Field in Chicago, a first-inning foul off the bat of Cubs’ rookie Kyle Schwarber hit a woman in the head with such force that the ball bounced back onto the field. She was placed on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital, another victim of an injury that has become all too common in 2015.

If it seems as if more fans than ever are getting hurt by foul balls and broken bats, it’s because more fans than ever are getting hurt.

How can that be?

For one, seats in new and renovated ballparks are closer to the action than they used to be. The woman struck in Chicago was sitting between the first base dugout and the camera well — a box-seat section recently created at 101-year old Wrigley Field.

For another, there are more distracted spectators checking for messages on their cellphones, or gazing at high-definition video boards, or pondering any of 50 different ballpark menu selections that have replaced the traditional hot dog with mustard.

Those occupying seats over the dugouts are at particular risk. A foul lined by Schwarber — he’s 235 pounds, with a ton of strength — would challenge a professional athlete to react in time to avoid the ball. The casual fan whose eyes aren’t peeled on every pitch is a calamity waiting to happen.

In the aftermath of an incident Cubs manager Joe Maddon described as “awful,” he offered some simple advice.

“Pay attention,” he said. “Those are wonderful seats, probably paying a lot of money for them. I see people turning their back to the action. You can’t do it.”

What you can do is exercise common sense. Kids not old enough to pay attention don’t belong in those wonderful seats, nor do elderly fans without snap reflexes.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball can do a better job overseeing the public safety. A Bloomberg News study last year estimated that 1,750 spectators a season are injured by balls hit into the stands — about twice every three games. It’s more likely, on any given day, a fan will be hurt by a foul ball than a batter will be hit by a pitch.

Requiring teams to expand the net that protects fans behind the plate is an obvious, if imperfect, alternative. Watching a game behind what amounts to a cage compromises the aesthetic joy a day at the ballpark offers, to be sure, but so does a trip to the emergency room with a fractured skull.

Teams are on their own about the dimensions of protective nets, and for reasons involving aesthetics and the price of a wonderful seat, most ballpark nets do not go beyond the on-deck circle. A net that continues over both dugouts and extends to the corner bases isn’t a fail-safe guarantee against injuries, but it seriously reduces the chances of a fan enduring the kind of gruesome accident — a shattered-bat shard to the head — that sent a 44-year-old woman to a Boston hospital in June.

“There’s a variety of issues we’re going to take a fresh look at,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in the wake of that nightmare. “You have to react strongly to an incident like this, but I think the best word for it is that we’re going to re-evaluate where we are on this topic.”

The NHL re-evaluated its fan-safety policy after a 13-year old girl, watching a Columbus Blue Jackets game, was killed by a deflected puck in 2002. Nets were installed behind the goals, and the height of the Plexiglass boards was raised around all rinks.

It took a tragedy for the NHL to move forward, but it moved forward. The time now has come for Major League Baseball to move forward.

Extending protective nets over the dugouts, it seems to me, should be commissioner Manfred’s No. 1 priority for 2016. Replay reviews, umpire strike zones, the potential implementation of an international draft — none of these issues is as critical as spectator safety.

A fan went to the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field last Sunday, a beautiful day for a ballgame. She woke up Monday morning in the intensive-care unit of a hospital.

If that doesn’t spur a re-evaluation, nothing will.