Net Value

On August 7, 1982, Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice became a hero. But it wasn’t because the future Hall of Famer went 1-for-4 that day with double that scored a pair of RBI. The Red Sox would lose that game to the Chicago White Sox, anyway.

On this day thirty-seven years ago, Jim Rice saved a child’s life.

Jonathan Keane was four years old. His father Tom had brought him and his two-year-old brother down from New Hampshire to sit in seats behind the first-base dugout. It was supposed to be a beautiful family day at Fenway, but then Sox second baseman Dave Stapelton hit a foul ball in the fourth, and it struck Jonathan in the head. Suddenly, the little boy was on the ground, bleeding at the ballpark.

Jim Rice immediately leaped out of the dugout, picked up Jonathan, and carried him into the clubhouse to be looked after by the medical team. The ambulance that is always on standby at the ballpark during home games brought him to Children’s Hospital down the street. At just four years old, Jonathan had to undergo emergency surgery to relieve pressure caused by swelling in his brain.

Jonathan Keane is alive and well today, with children of his own. He threw out the first pitch at Fenway Opening Day 1983. But his father Tom maintains that without Rice’s quick action, his son would have died. Instead, he made a full recovery.

He shouldn’t have had to in the first place.

In 2014, Bloomberg News estimated that 1,750 fans are hurt by batted balls at MLB games every year. With the new juiced balls now in circulation, that number will only increase. Even one such incident should be too many, and there have been numerous so far this season. Just two days ago, a woman was hit by a ball at a Rangers game. June saw a shocking number of injuries: a woman was hospitalized after a foul ball hit her at a White Sox game, then Dodgers star Cody Bellinger hit a fan with a foul ball at Dodger Stadium, and on June 17th, two fans were injured, one at a Cardinals-Marlins game, the other at the Indians-Rangers game.

Last year, a 79-year-old woman died after being hit by a foul ball at Dodger Stadium; it was the third time in MLB history that a fan has died after being hit by a ball that left the field of play. She wasn’t distracted by an iPhone either, the excuse many folks opposed to extending the netting claim is part of the problem; she didn’t own one. There really is no logical argument; one would have to be practically superhuman in order to protect themselves from a foul ball. Physics professor John Eric Goff says that a ball can travel 130 feet in one second, which gives fans virtually zero time to react to the situation. Players have agreed, and it’s hard to argue that a fan should be expected to protect themselves when professional athletes say that they would not be able to do so themselves.

Players are almost unanimously in favor of extending the netting, and understandably so. Many have publicly stated that it is their worst nightmare to hurt a fan, and unfortunately, many have seen that nightmare become reality this year. Cubs player Albert Almora Jr. broke down crying earlier this season, when he fouled off a ball that struck a two-year-old girl, fracturing her skull. According to Statcast, the ball traveled 160 feet in 1.2 seconds, going 90 MPH when it hit her. When asked about the tragic incident, Almora’s teammate Kris Bryant told ESPN, “Any safety measure we can take to make sure fans are safe, we should do it.”

According to an independent study by FiveThirtyEight, most of the hardest-hit foul balls this season land in areas of ballparks that are “primarily unprotected.” They looked at 906 of the foul balls hit so far this season, and Statcast was able to measure exit velocities on 560 of those 906: 71.8% of balls with recorded exit velocities of 90 mph or higher landed in zones where the seatings have little to no protective netting.

Some teams have already begun to extend the netting on their own, beyond MLB’s recommendations. The Tigers were the first team to do so in 2018, and the White Sox and Nationals followed suit this year. The Rangers’ new ballpark will have netting extending into the outfield when it opens next year, and the Blue Jays, Dodgers, Pirates and Royals have all announced they will extend their ballparks’ netting for next season. In Japan, the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization has netting from foul pole to foul pole in their stadiums, but MLB Commissioner Manfred has said that netting is a club-level issue, an teams can extend or opt not to extend at their own discretion. It will therefore become clear which franchises actually place value on the lives of their fans, and which do not.

United States senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth are now pressuring MLB to be more transparent and make data surrounding these injuries available to the public. They’re requesting an “Injury Registry” to “help inform fans and their families about the safest locations to sit.” The fact that people have to go to these lengths to get MLB to take action shows the league’s lack of concern with its fans’ wellbeing. They’d rather make attending a ballgame a strategic ordeal for paying customers than simply extend the netting so families could feel safe everywhere. Many fans with young children will likely opt to stay home instead, the upsides of saving money, and feeling safe are pretty appealing and hard to argue. The multiple negative outcomes that MLB doesn’t seem to consider: lower revenue, emptier ballparks, and a new generation of children who will not grow up loving the magical atmosphere of their home team’s ballpark, because instead, they’ll grow up thinking it’s too dangerous to go to a game. MLB is digging its own grave, for no legitimate reason at all.

As someone who is often fortunate enough to sits in beautiful seats behind the current netting, I can say without a doubt that I am nothing but grateful for their existence. I still flinch every time a ball is fouled in my direction, even though I know I should be safe. But the price of fans’ lives is too high to pay for an “unobstructed view,” an excuse that barely holds water to begin with; I can see the action just fine.

To expect fans to be superhumanly vigilant instead of expecting them to just enjoy the game is ludicrous and careless. I remember what it felt like to walk into Fenway Park as a little girl, because I still feel that way every game: in awe of the beauty and enormity of my surroundings, and totally overwhelmed by it all. I can say with certainty that at no age would I be able to protect myself from one of the rockets coming off Rafael Devers’ bat, and I shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t have to risk our lives just to love baseball.

Thirty-seven years ago today, Jim Rice saved Jonathan Keane’s life. And thirty-seven years is too long to still be talking about keeping fans safe in ballparks. If MLB wants to have any fans at all, they’ll stop focusing on 3-batter minimums and paper straws, and start prioritizing about making sure they live through a ballgame long enough to realize how much there is to love about baseball.

Follow me on Twitter @gfstarr1 for live-tweeting, stats, and all things sports!


Photos: Getty Images

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