NET OVER YOURSELF

NET OVER YOURSELF

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On Wednesday afternoon, Aaron Judge hit his 45th homer, which was followed by Gary Sanchez’s 32nd.  The Yankees cruised to a 11-3 win over the Twins, completing a three-game sweep and keeping the pressure on the division-leading Red Sox.

But the Yankees’ win was overshadowed by what happened in the seats behind the third base dugout in the fifth inning.  As I am sure many of you have seen by now, Todd Frazier rocketed a foul ball into the stands at 105 miles per hour.  The ball struck a young girl sitting with her grandparents.  Bloody and bowed, she was carried to the first aid station, and then transported to New York Presbyterian-Columbia Hospital.

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As of this writing, per her father, the girl is “doing all right”, but he could not (or would not) confirm whether or not she would need surgery for her injuries.

After impact, the game came to a halt.  Frazier, a father of two children under the age of the three kneeled in the batter’s box, shaken and concerned.  Twins’ second baseman Brian Dozier actually cried when he saw her hit by the screaming liner.  The game did not resume until the little girl was taken from her seat; she, the fans around her, and the players on the field, all the worse for the wear.

This horrific incident has, once again, brought the issue of protective netting back to the forefront.  And this one is an absolute no-brainer.  In fact, since just Wednesday afternoon, the Reds, Padres, and Mariners have all committed to extending their netting for the 2018 season.

Now, for those of you who have not followed this closely, here is a little primer: There are about 1,750 incidents of fans being hit by foul balls at Major League stadiums each season.  Put differently, in a typical season, every time Mike Trout gets a base hit, about 10 fans get nailed by a foul ball.

After the 2015 season, Commissioner Rob Manfred “encouraged” teams to extend their netting to the “near end of both dugouts”.  Let’s unpack that a bit.  Through the 2015 season, many teams only had netting directly behind home plate; and despite the rash of injuries from foul balls and flying bats, the best MLB could muster was a gentle prod that the netting be extended to the near end of the dugout?!?  In fairness, MLB did offer some guidance about extending it even farther.  Nothing was required.  In fact, the Commissioner was clear that he wanted this to be a “localized process”, with each team working with its own fan base to determine the best course of action for safety and enjoyment of the game.  What a bunch of hooey.

The truth of the matter is that baseball – and all of its teams – have been hiding behind the protective netting of a legal theory known as “assumption of risk”, and colloquially known as the “Baseball Rule”.  In short, fans come to the game knowing it is dangerous, and thus assume the risk that they may be hurt.  And for years, courts have upheld this doctrine.  But the times, they may be a changin’.

A few years ago an appeals court in Ohio reversed a lower-court ruling in favor of the Cleveland Indians in a fan injury case.  In Idaho, the state Supreme Court elected not to impose the Baseball Rule and allowed a fan at a minor league game (who lost an eye) to present his case to the jury.  A fan who was badly injured at – get this, Yankee Stadium – is currently in litigation with the team and the league regarding the fine print on the back of the ticket and this outdated legal theory.

Michael Moran, an Atlanta lawyer who has litigated these types of cases, previously stated: “The game is different now. Ballparks are configured differently than they were 20 or 30 years ago; the foul lines are closer to the stands. Pitchers throw harder. Batters hit the ball harder. All these things increase the risk.”

Are we to believe that even the most adroit fan can (and should) react to a ball that is on top of them in less than a second? If that were so, why would teams put netting in front of the dugouts?  Shouldn’t the best athletes in the park – individuals who are paid to pay attention and who don’t have the myriad diversions and distractions that are intended and encouraged for the fans – be prepared to avoid a foul ball or a hurtling bat?

The most common refrain from the teams is that fans don’t want to sit behind the netting.  Really?  The next time you watch a game and they show the centerfield camera angle, please pay attention to the dearth of fans sitting behind home plate (where there is netting in every park), and the masses sitting behind each dugout?  What, you say?  The seats behind home plate (except, ironically, at Yankee Stadium) are full; and fans have paid upwards of $1,000/ticket to sit there?  Now I am thoroughly confused.

I will acknowledge that fans find the netting a distraction…at first.  But then they get used to it.  I speak from experience, as I sit behind home plate, behind a net, and now barely notice it.  Don’t believe me?  Where do baseball executives and scouts sit?  People who are literally paid to watch and analyze the game do so behind the net; but Joe Six-Pack cannot enjoy watching Aroldis Chapman pitch through 3/16 of an inch of braided nylon?

Hockey harbored this same fear about their fans.  And then a 13-year old girl was killed by an errant hockey puck in 2002.  You know what they did?  They added netting around the goals.  And you know happened?  Nothing.  Attendance was, and remains, virtually unchanged on a year-to-year basis.

There is a reason why they stop selling beer after the seventh inning.  There is a reason why bottles aren’t allowed in the park.  There is a reason why mini bats are no longer given away.  Fan safety has trumped the fan experience for years – except in this one area.  And is there is simply no (reasonable/rational) excuse.

So here is what should happen.  After the 2015 season, the Commissioner asked the teams to do their own research.  Ostensibly, the Yankees did this.  And, ostensibly, they made a business decision that, by installing/expanding their netting, they would lose X dollars from fans who no longer wanted to sit between the dugouts.  That little girl’s family needs to sue the Yankees; and through discovery, obtain that analysis and determine the value of X.  And then a court should award damages equal to three times X.  The Yankees should lose all that they hoped to avoid losing, three times over.

The little girl should get the first X.  She is the Neil Armstrong, the Rosa Parks, the Jackie Robinson of ballpark safety.  She earned X with the damage to her tiny nose and her little eye.

The next X should go to a fund for all fans injured at the new Yankee Stadium since it opened in 2009.  By that time, everyone – including the Yankees’ brass – knew that seats closer to the field + insufficient netting = unnecessary and potential serious risk.

The final X should go to building and refurbishing baseball fields all over New York.  Show the kids of the Empire State that baseball cares about them, their safety, and their fandom.

And one last thing: the Commissioner must issue an edict – not a suggestion, not a recommendation, not guidance – but an actual rule.  Every team must install protective netting to at least the far end of each dugout prior to the commencement of the 2018 season.  Each team that fails to do so is fined $1 million per game until the same is properly installed.

We have big, complicated, unwieldy problems in this country.  Fans having to worry about their life being altered/in jeopardy in less than the blink of an eye while trying to enjoy America’s favorite pastime shouldn’t be one of them.

Enough is enough.

PLAY BALL!!

CLAYTON’S DAD

CLAYTON’S DAD

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw looks to the ground as St. Louis Cardinals Matt Adams circles the bases after hitting a three run home run in the seventh inning in Game 4 of the NLDS at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on October 7, 2014. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Clayton Kershaw was born my sophomore year of high school. For reasons that we need not get into here, I cannot possibly be his father. However, when he takes the mound — and especially when he takes the mound late in the game — and especially when he takes the mound late in a post-season game — I may as well be.

The nerves I feel for Clayton are not dissimilar to those I feel when my own son toes the rubber for his JV team or when my daughter is astride the balance beam.  My hope for them to do well is only surpassed by my desire that they not be in that  moment at all.  I sometimes wish I had taught them that life can be a spectator sport.

I am, by nature, a pessimistic fan.  I expect the worst to happen, and am only relieved when it doesn’t.   I guess this is the product of a lifetime of Red Sox fandom and having the Arizona Wildcats as my alma mater.

I have no doubt, at 730pm Friday night, when Clayton Kershaw takes the field, in the words of Vin Scully, “in the loneliest place in the world, the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium”, I will be biting my nails to the nub.

It will be for the same reason that when Clayton gave up a lead-off double to David Freese in the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS, with the score 0-0, I got a pit in my belly.  This “dad” knew something wasn’t right.  Runner on second with no outs!?  When Kersh struck out Matt Adams, it looked like he had a way out.  But then there was an A.J. Ellis passed ball, and the air got a little cooler.  A harmless (had the runner been on second) flyball made the score 1-0, which is where it stood when the 27th out was recorded.

Who can forget October 3, 2014.  Kershaw gave up solo homers to the second and eighteenth batters he faced; he retired all 16 in between (including seven Ks).  The sixth inning ended with the Dodgers up 6-2.  “Pull Kershaw”, this dad yelled from my kitchen, where I was helping prepare the Sandy Koufax-approved Erev Yom Kippur meal.  Preserve the beauty of this performance and allow the bullpen to get the last nine outs.  Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  We all remember the disaster that was that fateful seventh inning; the inning that, in many respects, defines Kershaw’s post-season career: 1B, 1B, 1B, 1B, K, 1B, K, 2B, BB, HR, 5-3.  The top of the seventh ended with the Dodgers trailing 10-6, with Dodgers eventually losing 10-9.

But Kershaw had a chance to atone not four days later in St. Louis, and he was ready: K, K, K / BB, DP, K / 3, 5-3, K / 7, 1B, 4-3,  K / 8, 5-3, BB, 2-1 / K, K, K.  Six innings, twenty batters faced, one hit, nine Ks, one BB.  To this dad, it certainly seemed like he earned a hot shower and a cold beer.  Yet again, it wasn’t meant to be.  Kershaw trotted out for the seventh, and the pit starting forming in my belly.  Matt Holliday (he of the 295 career homeruns to that point) led off with an infield single.  By the time Jhonny Peralta knocked a clean single to center, I had a full-blown stomach ache.  Then three pitches later, Matt Adams hit a 3-R bomb to right.  Game, set, match, and season over; reputation cemented.

Kershaw had to wait another 367 days to avenge those two Cardinals games.  In Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS, Kershaw had made one bad pitch (a homer to Daniel Murphy to lead off the fourth), but was otherwise cruising into the seventh (23 batters faced, 4 hits, 1 walk, and 11 Ks).   But then he walked Lucas Duda to open the inning; and we all know about leadoff walks (I know that the actual statistics show a walk isn’t any likelier to score than a hit, but it certainly feels that way).  A ground out and then another walk, and my Spidey senses were on high alert.

Why couldn’t Mattingly have pulled him after six?  Kershaw didn’t need to be out there for another trip through the order.  Hadn’t he learned anything from the year before?  Once again, I was no longer a baseball fan, I was a dad watching his son implode – in slow motion.  In my alternative universe, this is when I would have excused myself from the stands and taken that long walk behind the bleachers, down beyond the dugout to watch this nightmare unfold in private – away from the prying eyes of the other parents, and where the coach wouldn’t hear me cursing him for keeping my kid on the hill too long.

A Jacob deGrom sacrifice bunt followed by yet another walk, and Kershaw’s night was over.  Sacks full with Pedro Baez in to save the day…fat chance.  David Wright singled in two, and my boy took the loss.  In this alternate universe, I prepared for our long drive home.

It happened again a few weeks ago, in Philadelphia.  Kershaw had retired 15 of the first 17 batters he faced, and had a 2-0 lead going into the sixth.  But then Ty Kelly lead off with a walk (see above for that pit and that irrationally useless research).  A pop-out (phew); single (uh-oh); K (nice); BB (uh-oh, again).  This is when the baseball fan in me stepped back and said: “In 103 career chances, Kershaw has allowed five bases loaded doubles, and six bases loaded walks.  But he has never allowed a bases loaded homerun”.  And then my inner monologue went to Aaron Altherr – a career .234 hitter with a total of 25 big league dingers – and I just knew Kershaw could retire the side and turn a 2-0 lead over to the bullpen.  But, the dad in me was still nervous.  Father knows best.

When Kershaw hung a 1-1 slider and Altherr hit the ball 418 feet, and four runs scored, and the Dodgers now trailed 4-2, and Kershaw had been out there a few batters too long once again, and all the other parents in the stands were consoling me, I just knew it would be another long drive home.

I don’t know why I have such a filial connection to Clayton Kershaw.  I certainly don’t feel this way about Tom Brady, or Andrew McCutchen, or Steph Curry.  I want them to do well, but I am not heart-sick about the prospect of them not.  I don’t secretly hope Brady hands the ball off, or McCutchen draws a walk, or Curry passes up the big shot – I want them in there and I want them to succeed.

Maybe it is because I believe – in my soul – that Kershaw has been the victim of bad luck, and a player of such great quality (both on and off the field) deserves better.  Maybe it is because I want the best pitcher alive to always be the best pitcher alive.  Maybe it is just because I am a fan, which is short for “fanatic”.   I have no idea.

But whatever the answer, I sit in the stands or on my couch holding the theoretical pillow, hoping to provide a soft landing for a grown man; a man with a wife and two kids; a professional athlete making more than $30 million per year.  Which begs the question: What is wrong with me?

I guess that’s what makes sports great – we love the game, and we love the players that we root for/idolize/lionize – literally – beyond reason.

And so, when David Peralta or A.J. Pollock digs in for that first pitch of the NLDS on Friday night, rest assured that my heart will be in my throat.

PLAY BALL!!