10 Degrees: The absurd arguments against MLB stadium netting continue to be candidly absurd

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports
Fans applaud as a medical employee carries an injured youngster from the stands after the boy was hit in the head by a shattered bat at a Royals-Yankees game in May of 2017. (AP)
Fans applaud as a medical employee carries an injured youngster from the stands after the boy was hit in the head by a shattered bat at a Royals-Yankees game in May of 2017. (AP)

Blindness. Brain bleeding. Shattered eye sockets. Noses split in half. Blood-filled sinuses.

Smile! You’re on “Candid Camera”!

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Perhaps you missed Peter Funt’s op-ed in The New York Times this week. Surely the host of a television show that catches people’s instant reactions to unexpected things would understand that a baseball traveling at ungodly speeds might pose enough danger – and have a history of causing the aforementioned injuries – to warrant the extended netting that stretches to the end of the dugouts in all 30 major league stadiums now. But no. That would make too much sense and be too easy. The world needs men like Funt to show the impossible stupidity of the argument against netting.

For 679 words of bilge, Funt stepped all over himself. He said “fans in choice seats are now caged,” complaining “they can’t interact with players as they used to,” as if Funt and others once upon a time were greeting players as they came off the field with secret handshakes. Or maybe these new nets have the amazing ability to prevent people on the field from commingling with those off it. In which case it would be abundantly clear that logic resides on the field and Peter Funt in the stands.

He followed by bellyaching about parents bringing infants to games. Because, yes, that’s exactly what baseball needs: the average age of its fan to increase from 57 to Funt.

Newly installed netting at Safeco Field designed to protect fans from foul balls and flying bats is shown above the visitors’ dugout during a game between the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/sea" data-ylk="slk:Seattle Mariners">Seattle Mariners</a> and the Cleveland Indians on Thursday in Seattle. (AP)
Newly installed netting at Safeco Field designed to protect fans from foul balls and flying bats is shown above the visitors’ dugout during a game between the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians on Thursday in Seattle. (AP)

All of this because Funt worries about what happens when “safety measures become too extreme.” Perhaps he should introduce himself not just to the 2-year-old girl who at Yankee Stadium got brained by a ball in the stands but to Alex Grippi or Dina Simpson or Terry Santiago or Jay Loos or the hundreds of other people injured at stadiums last year.

Or maybe he should just ask Andy Zlotnick. He’d be happy to tell Funt his story face to face or over the phone, though perhaps Funt and everyone else aggrieved about the nets stopping them from snagging foul balls or somehow diluting the experience of a live game can learn about Zlotnick’s story here. He was at a Yankees game in 2011 with his 12-year-old son. Hideki Matsui ripped a ball down the first-base line, well past the end of the dugout. It hit Zlotnick where the eye meets the cheek. And here’s what happened.

His eye socket shattered. His cheekbone fractured. The tendon that connects his eye to his skull severed, rolling his eye backward.

“When I first got hit,” Zlotnick told Yahoo Sports in an interview, “I thought I died. I saw the white light. I thought I was going to my maker.”

Doctors rebuilt his eye socket, stabilized his cheek with a metal plate and reconnected his tendon. Seven years later, he suffers from retina damage, double vision and numbness in his lips and gum. His cheek never stops hurting.

That is the consequence of a baseball hitting a person in the face. Peter Funt believes the best efforts to prevent that are “too extreme.” And though …

1. Major League Baseball teams have stepped up in extending the netting this season and the number of complaints about it are insignificant, the question is: Will it be enough, or does MLB need to adopt foul pole-to-foul pole netting as seen in Japan?

“I think we’re in a better place,” Zlotnick said. “It’s been a good first step with major league teams doing it, but I’d like to see it codified and really see the teams take a look at if the end of the dugouts is far enough.”

Zlotnick’s point was reinforced last week on “HBO’s Real Sports,” which told his story and that of a half-dozen others whose lives were irrevocably changed by foul balls. During the segment, which followed up on a previous “Real Sports” story about the subject in 2016, fans sat behind a Plexiglas board, and workers from the Sports Science Laboratory at Washington State fired balls at 95 mph toward them. When the fans were paying attention, a number still weren’t quick enough to protect themselves. When they were simply talking, it was a horrifying incident waiting to happen. And it does happen, again and again.

This is MLB’s problem, its responsibility, and while it’s understandable that the league wants to obstruct as few seats as possible, its unwillingness to prioritize safety prior to the injury at Yankee Stadium shows proactivity simply isn’t in the offing. It prefers to focus on the good things in the sport, like the splendor …

2. Shohei Ohtani unleashed on the Oakland A’s in his first major league start Sunday. His final line – six innings, three hits, three earned runs, one walk, six strikeouts – did not reflect the quality of his stuff, which ebbed between overwhelming and otherworldly.

Ohtani threw 39 fastballs. Their average velocity: 97.8 mph. He hit 100 three times, 99 nine more and carried his velocity into his final inning, where his final three fastballs went 97, 98, 98. Even better was his split-fingered fastball, a pitch he didn’t fully unleash until the end of the start, when he threw it 11 times in the final two innings and generated five swings and misses.

In all, the A’s whiffed on 18 of Ohtani’s 92 pitches. That’s 19.6 percent. For context, Corey Kluber led the major leagues last season with a swinging-strike rate of 15.6 percent. Ohtani’s raw, pure stuff is elite, and if he carries the quality of what he showed Sunday throughout the rest of the season, he will be one of the game’s best pitchers.

Most of the criticism of Ohtani, from this corner and elsewhere, has been framed through the lens of balancing his arm and his bat. The first step is ensuring his hitting does not affect his pitching in deleterious fashion. And if Sunday was any indication, his hanging slider that Matt Chapman whacked for a three-run homer aside, it hasn’t. Good. Then comes the question of whether Ohtani’s bat is major league-ready and -quality. Neither has been answered yet, and it will be interesting to see how long a leash the Angels give Ohtani.

Because the question isn’t just about his ability with the bat but the opportunity cost. More time focusing on hitting means less on pitching. And if Ohtani can do what he did Sunday while focusing on both, it’s at very least worth considering that fixing the full extent of his mental and physical gifts on one pursuit could unlock even more. Give him enough time, and he could do what …

Twins starter Jose Berrios dominated the Orioles on Sunday in a complete game. (AP)
Twins starter Jose Berrios dominated the Orioles on Sunday in a complete game. (AP)

3. Jose Berrios did Sunday: toss a three-hit shutout and look almost effortless in doing so. Like Ohtani, Berrios is a 23-year-old right-hander, and while he doesn’t have quite the array of pitches or the fastball velocity, he is in full control of what he does throw, and it’s magnificent to watch.

At the risk of blaspheming, the pitcher Berrios most resembles may be Jose Fernandez. The comparison stems from the shape of their curveballs, 1-to-7 benders that turn bats feeble, but there is more. Both attacked with two- and four-seam fastballs; Fernandez’s best was the four-seamer that ran up to 100 mph, Berrios’ a two-seamer that jets with late movement even at 95. Each unleashed a changeup that was too good to be a show-me pitch but was there mainly as a complement to the heat-and-hook combination.

Even more, both pitched with a clear joie de vivre. Seeing Berrios follow up six shutout innings from Jake Odorizzi and six no-hit innings from Kyle Gibson with an even fiercer embarrassing of the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup reminded that while it’s impossible to replace Fernandez, his death allows an appreciation of him through those like Berrios, who embody what made him so great.

His start was the best in an opening weekend full of pitchers tossing shutout ball, from Felix Hernandez to Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer to Johnny Cueto, Alex Wood to Luis Severino and Chris Sale to …

4. David Price, his Boston teammate who doesn’t throw as hard as he used to but looked every bit as good as he has since joining the Red Sox. Granted, it was against a Tampa Bay Rays lineup that managed nine runs over its first four games, but still: Considering Price’s first two seasons in Boston – solid but not $60 million solid – it’s progress.

As much as the Red Sox’s fortunes may be guided by their lineup (which scored just 10 runs in those same four games) or the back end of their rotation or their bullpen, having Sale be Sale and Price be 2010-15 Price would go a long way toward stealing the American League East from the Yankees. Just as good, it would bring hope to the Red Sox salvaging the final four years and $127 million left on Price’s contract after this season.

Even with a great year, the likelihood of Price opting out of his deal isn’t good. The probability of a team guaranteeing that much to a pitcher who will be 33 at the end of the season and has struggled with elbow issues is minuscule. Price and the Red Sox are a marriage for the long haul. Like many, it had its share of early problems, though that isn’t always the case. Just look at  …

5. Freddie Freeman and the Atlanta Braves, whose biggest beef regarded the team’s choice to rebuild. It meant some of Freeman’s most productive years would be lost to miserable teams.

With Ronald Acuña’s recall seemingly imminent, though, and the Braves on the cusp of a massive talent infusion by the middle of next season, Atlanta is a good place to be. And the stability Freeman brings is beyond question. The Braves’ choice of him over Jason Heyward proved one of the most fortuitous decisions of the decade, as his eight-year, $135 million contract could prove one of the great nine-figure bargains in the game’s history.

In the first three games of the season, Freeman walked seven times and struck out just once. Teams may pitch around him – two of those walks were intentional – but the five unintentional are tied for the most in the big leagues with Starlin Castro. Yes, that Starlin Castro, whose career high is 36 walks in a season.

Freeman’s is far likelier to last, if he can transform into the rare power hitter with supreme plate discipline, he’s even more of an MVP candidate than he already is. This year and next, the Braves will pay Freeman $21 million, and the two years after that, it will be $22 million. And to think …

6. Chris Davis is making $23 million this year. This is not to single out Davis, by the way. That he shares a position and nearly a salary with Freeman is just bad luck. This degree is for all those like Davis: the few, the proud – the men without a hit.

In the middle of the summer, players will go a dozen hitless at-bats and it won’t even register, because that’s the game. At the beginning of the season, though, that .000 is glaring and mean and ugly, and Davis’ comes in 12 at-bats. He’s got company. Dexter Fowler is at a baker’s dozen without a knock. Andrew Benintendi’s hits have gone the way of his hair. He’s 0 for 11. Paul Goldschmidt is without a hit in eight at-bats, though his four walks give him a perfectly respectable .385 on-base percentage.

The hits will come because they always do, and at some point they will come in droves because they always do, though perhaps not with quite the frequency at which …

The Nationals’ <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9302/" data-ylk="slk:Adam Eaton">Adam Eaton</a> hits a two-run home run off Reds reliever Yovani Gallardo on Sunday. (AP)
The Nationals’ Adam Eaton hits a two-run home run off Reds reliever Yovani Gallardo on Sunday. (AP)

7. Adam Eaton is producing these days. It’s easy to forget Eaton in a lineup that includes Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Taylor and, soon enough, Daniel Murphy. It’s tough to forget what Eaton has done thus far: a .615 batting average, two home runs and seven runs – two more than the entire Baltimore roster has scored.

With Lucas Giolito impressing scouts, Reynaldo Lopez set to start his season Monday and Dane Dunning coming off a 168-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minor leagues, the Washington Nationals gave up a truckload of talent for Eaton. When he’s healthy – he missed most of last year and this spring after tearing his ACL – Eaton flashes the talent to warrant the deal, particularly with a contract that runs three years beyond this season at $27.9 million total.

The desire to add a deal like that to the books excites executives, and to see Eaton do what he’s doing, or …

8. Christian Yelich do what he has done, lessens the sting of surrendering so many prospects. A day after Eaton went 5 for 5 in a game, Yelich did the same Sunday, and through three games, he and the other addition to the Milwaukee Brewers’ outfield, Lorenzo Cain, are 15 for 28.

Even before their sweep of San Diego, the Brewers had the look of a fun team. Chase Anderson is one of the game’s most underappreciated starters, and Brent Suter is an end-of-career Tom Glavine throwback, his fastball fast in name only but his effectiveness palpable. Josh Hader is a monster out of the bullpen, and manager Craig Counsell has used him cannily since he arrived last season. Hader looks like what would happen if Chris Sale and Randy Johnson procreated: skinny, left-handed and whip-armed, featuring a great fastball, a dirty slider and 80-grade flow that plumes out of his hat and down his neck.

As great as the debut of the 2018 Brewers may have been, that of …

9. Gabe Kapler did not quite reach the same standard. It is not easy for a manager to raise questions over his competency for the job within his first three major league games, though Kapler always has been ill at ease with doing things in normal fashion.

It’s part of why he appealed to the Philadelphia Phillies. The success of Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch showed the value in someone with front-office experience transitioning to the field. The difference: Hinch is almost universally loved throughout the game, whereas Kapler is among its five most polarizing figures.

Those who love him loooooove him, and those who don’t doooooon’t, and those extra five o’s tell the story of the controversy over Kapler’s hiring. All of it would be validated if Kapler acquitted himself well in the job.

In the first game of the season, with a 5-0 lead, Kapler pulled his best starter, Aaron Nola, after 68 pitches and replaced him with Hoby Milner, who promptly allowed a home run to Freddie Freeman. The Phillies lost 8-5. Two days later, Kapler again tried to replace his starter with Milner. One problem: Milner hadn’t thrown a warm-up pitch.

Well, that’s what he said. Kapler told reporters: “He threw prior.” As Matt Gelb of The Athletic wrote: “Either Kapler lied or he had not obtained the full story hours after it occurred.” Whatever the case, it was rather high on the scale of dumb managerial moves, because not only did it look embarrassing and earn the Phillies a warning from MLB for delaying the entry of a player, it put Milner into a dangerous situation: throwing full-tilt in major league game without being ready.

Now, it should be said: Three games is too quick to make a judgment on Kapler’s preparedness for the job or his ability to fulfill its tasks. The criticisms of his tenure as Los Angeles Dodgers farm director were pointed – that he was more a brand than a department head. His advocates scoff at that idea and point to the talent the Dodgers churned out under his watch.

Kapler’s ability to learn on the job is paramount, and the greatest lesson that will come out of the first three games isn’t necessarily that pulling a starter too early is a mortal sin or that communication between dugout and bullpen is a must. It’s that the greatest quality a manager can have is steadiness, and compounding a weekend of foibles by declaring that the Phillies, who were 66-96 last year, will make the playoffs – well, that reeks of desperation, not equanimity.

Time will tell, as it always does, as it has with …

10. Major League Baseball taking so long to address safety at its parks. Not to be outdone by Funt’s mess in the Times, The Washington Post tried to tie a perfectly reasonable argument about the class division among baseball fans into the notion that netting exists to protect the bourgeoisie. It omitted the fact that the greatest number of complaints to teams about the netting came from those who can afford to sit behind it. The premise that MLB wants to protect rich people is laughable; for decades, even as the class divide grew, it wasn’t interested in protecting anyone. Even if it was morally indefensible, MLB wielded the Baseball Rule, the case law that indemnifies teams against lawsuits from fans hit by objects in the stands, as its legal shield.

“It’s clear the stadiums were dangerous,” Zlotnick said. “The league knew it. The owners knew it. They didn’t do anything about it. They had to do it because a toddler almost died, and they got shamed into it. I think the standard for all businesses is to operate with reasonable care. With 30 team owners extending their nets, they’ve acknowledged tacitly their ballparks were dangerous. They couldn’t have possibly been exercising that threshold of reasonable care.”

The Baseball Rule is almost as good to the league as its antitrust exemption – and nearly as antiquated, too. In a 53-page paper, professor and writer Nathaniel Grow argued for the abolition of the Baseball Rule.

“The professional baseball industry is radically different today than it was a century ago,” he wrote with co-author Zachary Flagel. “Nevertheless, courts continue to rely on 100-year-old legal doctrine when determining whether to hold teams liable for spectator injuries resulting from errant balls or bats leaving the field of play. Although the Baseball Rule may have been justified at the time it was first established, its subsequent legal development, as well as recent changes in both the law of torts and the game of professional baseball itself have undermined courts’ continued reliance on this antiquated doctrine. … The time has come for courts to dispense with the Baseball Rule, and instead hold professional teams strictly liable for their fans’ injuries, forcing teams to fully internalize the cost of the accidents their games produce.”

It was a clear-headed rejoinder to the dozens of cases thrown out of court on account of it, including Zlotnick’s. His original lawsuit against the Yankees and MLB was dismissed, and a pair of appeals ruled against him. Zlotnick and hundreds of others – Bloomberg in 2014 estimated 1,750 people a year at major league stadiums alone are hurt by foul balls – have no legal recourse to something that teams agree could, at very least, be mitigated.

The latest injury came when a foul ball – an innocuous-looking one and not some screaming shot – hit Kelsey Wingert, a sideline reporter for the Atlanta Braves, in the face and broke her eye socket. “It could have been MUCH worse,” she tweeted.

There will be much worse this year. Minor league teams haven’t been forced to adopt netting past the dugouts or further. The injuries will pile up there, and they’ll happen in the big leagues down the line or with balls that scream over the top of the nets with backspin, and hopefully the game makes it through another year without someone dying. Because despite what Peter Funt and others may think, that’s what this is about. Not ballpark experience. Not some socioeconomic statement. It is about making stadiums as safe as they need to be, and when it comes to a sport that launches a 5-ounce projectile up to 120 mph, that’s safer than they are right now.

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