Commentary: Major League Baseball Finally Does the Right Thing

By Joe Nocera, Bloomberg View | February 6, 2018

Last week, during Major League Baseball’s quarterly owners meetings, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks announced that they would be adding protective netting in front of the seats along first and third base at their stadiums. In doing so, they became the 29th and 30th teams to conclude that additional netting was needed to protect fans from screaming foul balls and flying broken bats.

Which means that when the season opens on March 29, all 30 teams will have extended netting in place. In some stadiums, such as Target Field in Minneapolis, the nets will run all the way to the foul poles; in others, they will only extend from the traditional netting behind home plate to the beginning of the dugouts. Although a vocal minority of fans have objected to the netting – saying that it will obstruct the view and create an unnecessary barrier between fans and players – baseball has finally decided that preventing fan injuries has to come first.

My first instinct is to say, “It’s about time.” As David Glovin of Bloomberg News noted in a 2014 article, some 1,750 fans are hit each year by foul balls or broken bats, and while most of them quickly shake it off, some are seriously injured. Baseball had long been protected by the “assumption of risk” doctrine: The back of every ticket informs fans that the risk of being hit by a ball or bat is theirs. And because the courts have consistently upheld this doctrine – also known as the baseball rule – teams had never bothered to add extra netting down the foul lines, even though that is where the most serious injuries occur.

On the other hand, as recently as two years ago, not a single team had extra netting. That all will have it this season suggests a remarkably quick change of heart. And though Major League Baseball will never acknowledge this, it’s due to the efforts of one man: Andy Zlotnick.

Andy is the general counsel for a big New York real estate developer. In 2011, during a game at Yankee Stadium, Hideki Matsui of the Oakland A’s hit a scorching line drive that struck Andy flush on his left eye. It was raining hard, and many fans had umbrellas out, obscuring Andy’s view. A split-second after the crack of the bat, he was on the ground, screaming for help, blood coming out of his eye and the left side of his face.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2015. Although Andy’s left eye socket had healed, as had his broken sinus and shattered upper jaw, the left side of his face remained so sensitive to the touch that even a kiss from his wife hurt. That pain will never go away. After attempting, without success, to get the Yankees to cover the $25,000 he spent in out-of-pocket medical expenses, he sued the team, arguing that the umbrellas created an unforeseen risk, mooting the baseball rule.

He also did plenty of research. “I realized it wasn’t just me,” Andy told me recently. “It was happening all the time, and with regularity. And many of the injuries were worse than mine.” He said to his wife, “I’ve got to do something. People are getting hurt and the league won’t stop it.” She replied, “You should speak to a journalist.”

That same fall, I was leaving the op-ed page at the New York Times for the sports department, where I would be writing a sports business column. I was hunting around for a strong first column when a mutual friend told me about Andy. When I asked where I could find him, the friend said that I just had to walk down a flight of stairs; though he and I had never met, he lived in the apartment directly below mine.

My column about Andy ran in November 2015. It included a gruesome selfie Andy had taken in the emergency room, and a prediction (by me) that the baseball rule’s days were numbered. After all, today’s players, fitter and stronger (sometimes with the help of steroids) than earlier generations, hit the ball with incredible force; a hard-hit foul ball can reach the stands in less than a second. Bats, now made of maple instead of ash, with thinner handles, splinter more easily. Teams have jumbotrons and wireless internet, creating all kinds of distractions. It didn’t seem reasonable to me that the courts could continue to hold baseball blameless anymore when fans were seriously hurt.

A month after my column ran, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred issued a news release saying the league was “encouraging” teams to extend the netting behind home plate to the “near ends” of the dugouts, the ones closest to home plate. To my mind, that wasn’t nearly enough, since the worst injuries take place in the stands past the dugouts, along the left- and right-field foul lines. But it was a start. Four teams – the Kansas City Royals, the Washington Nationals, the Texas Rangers and the Minnesota Twins – all had extended netting installed by the beginning of the 2016 season.

Andy, meanwhile, went from solitary litigant to public advocate. He reached out to other fans who had been badly injured, sometimes offering solace and encouragement, but also asking if they would be willing to speak publicly. He spoke to other journalists, including Bryant Gumbel. Gumbel conducted an experiment for his HBO show, “Real Sports,” in which people sat behind a hard plastic wall while a 95-mile-per-hour baseball came screaming at them. It showed that even those who paid close attention would likely not have time to get out of the way.

Players began to speak out, too. In August 2016, Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis hit a hard foul ball that struck a young girl in the face. “It’s 2016 and fans keep getting hit by foul balls when you’re supposed to have a net to protect the fans,” he said angrily after the game. The Phillies quickly agreed to extend the netting to the far end of the dugout.

In Minneapolis, Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe was asked what he thought of his team’s decision to extend the netting. “I am close enough to the stands that I can see how little time people have to react,” he replied. “It’s incredible to me that people didn’t do this years ago.”

In New York, Andy got City Councilman Rafael Espinal interested in the issue. Espinal introduced a bill early last season to extend netting in New York’s ballparks from home plate to the foul poles. He also scheduled a public hearing, but it was canceled when the Mets agreed to add netting.

By late September 2016, the number of teams with netting that went to the far end of the dugouts was up to 10. Then came the last straw: A little girl sitting behind the third-base dugout at Yankee Stadium was hit in the face by a foul ball – a brutal incident captured by TV cameras.

This time, Andy didn’t have to sound the alarm; there were immediate calls for the Yankees – and all the other holdouts – to add netting. And on the final day of the 2017 regular season, the Yankees finally announced that they too would extend netting not just to the end of the dugouts but well into the left- and right-field stands.

The one place Andy has not been successful is in court. So far, two New York courts have ruled against him, citing (of course) the assumption-of-risk doctrine. He’s got one appeal left, to the Supreme Court of New York’s Appellate Division. Odds are, he’ll lose there, too, even though he shouldn’t: That every major league team will have extended netting this season suggests pretty powerfully that teams well understand that a fan cannot be expected to fend for him- or herself when a 90-mph foul ball is headed straight for their head.

Still, Andy has won the larger war. Because of him, fan injuries should fall to nearly zero. Many teams are getting nets that can be raised and lowered so players can still sign autographs and toss balls to kids between innings. The netting itself is such a fine mesh that you can barely see it. It will be a nonissue by May.

This season, when you’re sitting behind the new netting and a foul ball is ripped in your direction and you instinctively flinch, only to see the ball blocked by the mesh in front of you, breathe a sigh of relief and give a thought to Andy Zlotnick, whose own injury prevented yours.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg View columnist. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is the co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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