Renowned horror novelist and lifelong Red Sox fan Stephen King published an op ed piece in the April 10 edition of the Boston Globe in which he objects to the newly-extended safety netting at Fenway Park. Mr. King, who has season tickets on the second row near the Sox dugout, is really upset that the new netting now protects this area of the ballpark. “I feel terrible about the netting,” he states. “It’s one more step toward taking the taste and texture out of the game I care for above all others. The bottom line? That net feels like paying good money to sit in a cage.”
Now, I admire Stephen King. I’ve read nearly everything he’s published (sorry, I just couldn’t get into the Dark Tower series) and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a writer. But I have to say that his argument against the extended netting is weak at best.
In defense of his position, Mr. King raises two points that one usually hears from opponents of netting. These points may, on the surface, sound reasonable, but in actuality are completely wrongheaded.
First, Mr. King plays the numbers game. While he agrees that some injuries are quite serious, he dismisses this concern by stating that “almost 74 million (emphasis his) fans attended MLB games in 2015, so the chances of being struck by a piece of bat or a foul line drive are pretty slim. Right up there with being struck by lightning, I’d say. Maybe even less, if the fan is paying attention.”
This line of reasoning is totally misleading. First, 74 million tickets were sold in 2015, but far fewer actually attended the games. More importantly, this figure includes the entire ballpark, even those areas where it is highly improbable, if not outright impossible, for a foul ball or errant bat to enter. Areas such as those seats behind home plate which have had protective screening for over a century and seating in the upper decks and outfield where balls rarely, if ever, go and where bats never land. If one wants to get a true picture of the real danger from bats and balls, then look just at the field level seats along the first and third base lines (referred to in the netting industry as “the Danger Zone”), not the entire ballpark. I have season tickets to my local minor league ballpark and I can assure you that fans in these areas are in serious danger of being struck by a ball or bat. During a game at the end of last season, a friend sitting next to me almost had his head taken off by a line drive foul. And, in that same game, two fouls went screaming past us, striking food kiosks along the concourse and a fan across home plate from us was struck on the shoulder by a line drive foul. To make matters worse, a fan seated near first base was nearly struck by a ball when the pitcher overthrew the first baseman in a pickoff attempt. (Fortunately, team ownership recognized the danger to fans and this season full netting has been extended to the far ends of both dugouts.)
In addition, I believe there are far more injuries in those areas than people realize. Almost two years ago, a journalist for Bloomberg.com wrote an article on the dangers from foul balls at major league games. The number he came up with was an average of 1,750 per season, not including injuries from bats or thrown balls or injuries at minor league games.
This figure was derived from a statistical formula and is not the actual number of injures. Why? Because MLB refuses to track fan injuries. All organized ball would have to do to get an exact count is to survey ballpark first aid stations. Even then, I suspect it would be an undercount, because many of those hit by a ball or bat to not seek medical attention, which was the case when I was struck on the forehead by a foul ball about 15 years ago.
The second point Mr. King raises is of the blame-the-victim variety. It is the responsibility of the fan, he asserts, to pay complete attention. If he or she is injured, then it is his or her fault, because anyone can duck a bat or ball if they know it is coming.
Here’s what is misleading about this argument. First, some seats are closer to home plate than is the pitching mound. In those cases, there may not be sufficient time for one to react. Just look at the number of pitchers struck by batted balls each season to get an idea of how little time there is to get out of the way of a screaming line drive. In addition, people react to danger in different ways. Some have quick reaction times and can dodge the ball or bat, others freeze or panic and do not move in a way that protects them.
But the real fallacy with this argument is that, while in an ideal world everyone is paying attention every time there is action on the field, that is not the case in reality. Does Mr. King pay attention every second he’s at a game? He refers to his seating area as a “neighborhood” since he’s had these same seats for years. He knows the folks around him, talks to them, even greets food and drink vendors that regularly come by his seat. Is he being “neighborly” between innings only, or is he sometimes distracted while the game is going on? I suspect the latter. As a season ticket holder, he is obviously an aficionado of the game, as am I. But I have to admit that there are times during the game when my mind wanders or my attention is distracted. For the casual fan, probably the majority of those attending an average game, isn’t it even more likely that he or she is not paying attention to every play on the field? In addition, many venues do everything in their power to distract fans from the game. It’s almost as if the game is secondary and it’s the entertainment in the stands that’s more important. At my ballpark, for example, there is wi fi for those who want to use their smartphones, fans are encouraged to take selfies and send them in to be posted on the large outfield screen at the end of the game, and the team mascot wanders throughout the stands interacting with the spectators. Believe me, much of this activity occurs while the game is in progress. So in these instances, who’s the most responsible for a lack of attention to the game, the fan or the ballpark?
Yes, Mr. King, fans should pay attention. But people are people and it’s simply not realistic to expect them to devote their full attention to the game every moment they are there. This is especially true of children, those most likely to suffer severe injury when struck by a ball or bat. Do you really believe that your irritation with the protective screening trumps fan safety? Really? I say that if the netting protects even one fan from suffering a life-altering injury, even if he or she is paying attention or not, then it is well worth it.
(Note: A modified version of this response appears in the April 18 edition of The Boston Globe)