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CHICAGO — White Sox players who toss baseballs to fans before games will have to get creative. Same goes for fans who take selfies with players before the first pitch. And fewer spectators will return home with a souvenir.
But all that seems a small price to pay for a night of enhanced safety.
As promised last month, the Sox have extended protective netting to the foul poles, joining the Nationals as the first two Major League Baseball teams to do so. Other teams have said they will re-examine the issue after the season.
The netting height ranges from 30 to 45 feet at Guaranteed Rate Field, high enough to shield fans from line drives while still allowing for popups to drop into their hands.
Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez hit a sharp foul into the seats June 10, resulting in a woman being hospitalized. He applauded the move Monday, saying many foul balls are hit “super hard … and now the fans are going to be more safe.”
Two weeks earlier in Houston, the Cubs’Albert Almora Jr. hit a screaming line drive that struck a 2-year-old girl, resulting in a fractured skull, according to her family’s attorney.
“Anytime they can prevent injuries in the stands, I think it’s a positive,” Almora said Sunday at Wrigley Field. “I’m excited to see how it works out and how people will enjoy the game and stay healthy.”
Sox spokesman Scott Reifert said Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf intended to extend the netting even before the Almora and Jimenez incidents.
“He understands the game is changing,” Reifert said.
In two key ways: 1) Fans are paying less attention to the game as their phones win out; 2) The new baseballs are smaller and harder, according to pitchers and Cubs manager Joe Maddon, resulting in more home runs and more dangerous foul balls.
The latest scary incident happened Sunday at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor scorched a foul down the right-field line, striking a 3-year-old.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was headed to somebody,” he said. “I hit it hard. I got over on the ball. It stinks.
“I encourage every MLB team to put the nets all the way down (to the foul pole). I know it’s all about the fans’ experience to interact with the players. I completely get that. You want to have that interaction with the players, getting autographs and stuff. But at the end of the day, we want to make sure everybody comes out of the game healthy.”
The NHL added protective netting in 2003 after a 13-year-old fan in Columbus, Ohio, was struck and killed by a deflected slap shot.
“After three minutes,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said at the time, “people won’t know it’s there.”
The new netting could play a factor in games. While the area above the dugouts is still considered out of play, the new protection will function as a wall. So if a batted ball lands in fair territory and then bounces off the netting, it is in play. Same for an errant throw.
Sox manager Rick Renteria said he doesn’t believe the netting will detract from the spectators’ experience.
“You can clearly see through that netting very, very well,” he said. “I’m sure fans will still find a way to get items through to get signed. You’ll still be able to have physical contact if you truly want to touch somebody.”
Reifert said the Sox did not consult fans who sit along the lines, in part because of urgency. The team wanted to extend the netting as quickly as possible.
Perhaps at some point, the nets will be constructed so they can be rolled up before games. But for now, safety is paramount.
“To get it done quickly, we had to seal it,” Reifert said. “Fans are going to adapt, players are going adapt. Let’s see what happens and then we can make decisions about next year.”