Ballparks playing catch-up on foul balls

A fan snags a foul ball during the home opener for the Charleston RiverDogs against the Columbia Fireflies at Riley Park on April 7.

Frank Harris and his family settled into their seats just above the first-base dugout at Riley Park for a Charleston RiverDogs baseball game. Harris, who grew up playing baseball and played football at The Citadel, knew sitting that close to the action required careful attention. He watched as the pitcher went through his wind-up and fired a strike to a left-handed batter.

“The batter checked his swing and just sort of redirected the pitch,” Harris recalled. “I wouldn’t even call it a decent checked swing. But he redirected the ball just enough.”

The ball sped straight toward Harris, who managed to get his hand up just in time. The baseball broke his Citadel class ring in half and grazed his forehead, leaving a welt.

“If I had not been paying attention, it would have hit me in the eye,” said Harris, who lives in Summerville. “Taking a ball at 85 or 90 miles per hour in the face ... it could have been catastrophic.”

Harris was lucky, luckier than many who have been injured by foul balls at ballparks around the nation. Even at Riley Park, one woman had her nose broken by a ball tossed into the stands.

A 2014 study by Bloomberg News found that about 1,750 people per year are injured by foul balls at Major League Baseball games. Studies show that there are about 46 foul balls per MLB game, and one estimate says that more than 50,000 foul balls go into the seats at MLB games each year. Add in minor league and college games, and the numbers rise dramatically.

After several incidents at MLB parks last season — in the space of about a month, two people at Boston’s Fenway Park were hit by a shattered bat and a foul ball, respectively — MLB announced new “recommendations” for protective nettings at its 30 ballparks.

The new guidelines call for protective nets to be extended to the near ends of both dugouts, and to cover any field-level seats within 70 feet of home plate. MLB says that all ballparks are now in compliance with those standards, and some — like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City — even exceed them.

The new standards also have been recommended for the 244 teams that are part of minor league baseball.

“Minor league baseball is very appreciative of the time and effort that went into the research done by Major League Baseball in an effort to balance fan safety and the overall fan experience,” MiLB president and CEO Pat O’Conner said in a statement. “We wholeheartedly endorse these recommendations ... in regard to the protective netting in our ballparks and encourage our clubs to implement these recommendations.”

In South Carolina, two of the four minor league parks have safety netting that meet or exceed MLB’s new recommendations.

The new Columbia Fireflies team, which plays in Spirit Communications Park in downtown Columbia, has netting that extends to the outfield end of each dugout, according to officials of the New York Mets’ Class A affiliate. So does Fluor Field in Greenville, home of the Greenville Drive, the Class A affiliate of the Red Sox, a team official said.

At the Myrtle Beach Pelicans’ Ticketreturn.com Field, the netting extends to the home-plate side of each dugout, a team official said. And at Riley Park, the netting stops about 10 feet short of the home-plate end of each dugout.

Dave Echols, president of the Yankees’ affiliate RiverDogs, said that the issue is under examination at Riley Park, which also is home to The Citadel baseball program, and is owned by the City of Charleston.

“We got the recommendation from Major League Baseball,” Echols said. “But the recommendation didn’t allow us sufficient time before the start of the season. The recommendation was relayed to the city, which is the owner of the facility, and the city is doing the necessary engineering to figure out how we can extend the netting properly.

“We are waiting for the results of the city’s research to make the recommendation of how we are going to do things.”

The netting could be extended as soon as this season, Echols said.

“If we get the report back from the city and it’s doable while the team is on the road, I would guess that’s a possibility,” he said.

Echols said he did not know how much extended netting might cost. For the Class AA Fort Wayne TinCaps, extended netting cost $20,000. The Charlotte Knights, Durham Bulls, Nashville Sounds and Chattanooga Lookouts are among the teams that installed extended netting prior to this season.

College programs also are paying attention to the issue. At South Carolina’s Founders Park, the current netting is 45 feet high and extends for 135 feet around home plate to the start of each dugout. A new system that would extend coverage to the end of each dugout is being designed and should be in place before the start of the 2017 season, a school spokesman said.

At Clemson’s Doug Kingsmore Stadium, the Tigers use what director of baseball operations Brad Owens calls “the most widely used high performance baseball backstop netting in the world.”

“The netting is No. 18 twisted knotted Dyneema ultra high molecular weight polyethylene with UV Marine Grade paint treatment,” he said. “It features excellent, nearly invisible, sight lines.”

Clemson’s netting extends 37 feet across behind home plate, 46 feet down the lines and is 30 feet high, Owens said. Field-level seats at Doug Kingsmore end at the home-plate side of the dugouts and are covered by the netting.

At Patriots Point, College of Charleston has a row of uncovered seats atop each dugout where season-ticket holders sit, without incident so far this season.

Of course, no amount of netting will make a ballpark perfectly safe. At a recent Tampa Bay Rays game, a fan was hit by a line-drive foul ball that shot through a small gap in the netting between home plate and the dugout. She was sitting in the second row and had to be removed from Tropicana Field on a stretcher, but was released from the hospital last week.

After his close call at Riley Park, Harris is in favor of added protection.

“Tradition says it would take away from the game,” he said. “But you have an environment there where a lot is happening outside of the game. If the game was the only thing happening, people would be better able to take care of themselves. But with everything that’s going on at a stadium — announcers and guys selling popcorn and peanuts, people on their cell phones — there’s a lot of people not paying attention.

“There are a lot of distractions created in that environment, so we ought to think about protecting those folks.”

Echols said fan safety trumps concern over sight lines or other issues of “fan experience.”

“Every operator wants fan safety to be foremost,” he said. “I’m sure everyone has a different answer as to whether they want to look through a net or not. But after a certain number of games, it would be like the home-plate area is now — just kind of a normal acceptance and not a hindrance.”

Part of the lure of MLB and minor league baseball, of course, is the action off the field.

“You know, in the minor leagues, it’s as much of a carnival as it is a baseball game, with all the promotions going on,” TinCaps president Mike Nutter told ballparkdigest.com. “Is everyone focused on the batter every pitch? We felt that answer was no. We can’t prevent them all, but what if we mitigate all those hard shots right over the dugouts? We felt like we needed to head that off right now, for us.”

In Harris’ case, actions spoke louder than words.

“After that foul ball,” he said. “we moved to seats behind the nets.”