ARIZONA, USA — Baseball spring training has started up in the Valley with 15 teams set to play in the Cactus League for the next month.
The 2021 spring training season comes after the 2020 season was abruptly ended due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. Game officials decided to allow a limited capacity of fans into Cactus League stadiums beginning on Feb. 28.
But while fans are being welcomed back, some fear that COVID is not the only risk they are taking.
Foul balls can and have injured game spectators prompting concerns
A campaign called Foul Ball Safety Now, led by Jordan Skopp, claims that fans are not safe from foul balls during baseball games because the protective netting at various fields is not sufficient. Skopp believes most fans are not aware of the risks they are taking by going to a baseball game and sitting in areas not protected by netting.
“If they really knew the reality, they would say, ‘Oh, I guess nets are needed like seat belts were needed 50 years ago,’” Skopp said.
A typical Major League game will include around 300 pitches. Of those, about 50 will be foul balls, and any one of those could go hurling toward fans.
A 2019 NBC News investigation found that more than 800 people had been hit and injured by foul balls at Major League Baseball games between 2012 and 2019. The MLB has 30 ballparks, but there’s a similar risk of injury at the minor league and college ballparks as well.
'It was just so fast': Fans typically don't have time to get out of dodge before being hit
In August 2018, Linda Goldbloom was celebrating her 79th birthday at Dodger Stadium when a foul ball hit and killed her. It was just the second death attributed to a foul ball in 50 years for the MLB, but Skopp believes the trend will continue without proper netting.
Stephanie Wapenski was hit right between the eyes by a foul ball at Fenway Park in 2015.
“It was just so fast,” Wapenski said. “I was looking straight at it, and it just came at me before my brain could process, ‘That’s coming at you.’”
Wapenski was bleeding from the head and needed dozens of stitches to close the wound. She recovered and remains a big baseball fan to this day.
She returned to Fenway Park to celebrate the following year and she and her husband were even married there. Despite everything, she does believe she got lucky.
“If I had had a second to flinch or if I had had my head turned and the ball had hit me in the soft part of the temple, I don’t know that you and I would be having a conversation right now,” Wapenski said.
Wapenski has no long-term effects from her foul ball injury, but another fan didn't fare so well.
Alexis Hoskey was four-years-old when she and her family went to a Kansas City Royals game in 2011, where a foul ball hit her in the face. She got medical attention at the time, but later in her childhood, she was diagnosed with ADHD. Her doctor said that the condition can sometimes be caused by a head injury.
Alexis Hoskey says that the only head trauma she ever had was following the foul ball incident.
Her father Monte Hoskey says he didn’t think the family was in danger when they took their seats 20 to 30 rows up from the third baseline, underneath the upper deck at Kauffman Stadium.
“I didn’t understand, obviously, the speed at which it would come up,” Monte said.
It has been ten years since the incident, and Alexis Hoskey says the family has only been back to Kauffman Stadium twice.
“I don’t think now if I had the chance to go, I probably would,” Alexis said. “If I did I would probably find more comfort sitting behind a net.”
There is no one-size-fits-all solution
There are 15 Cactus League teams that play games at 10 stadiums across the Valley, and each has a different philosophy on protective foul ball netting.
The MLB leaves the length of netting at spring training facilities up to each team or city, depending on who operates the ballpark.
For example, the Chicago Cubs own and operate Sloan Park in Mesa, and the Cubs extended protective netting there all the way to each foul pole prior to spring training in 2020.
The White Sox and Dodgers own and operate Camelback Ranch in Glendale, and the netting there extends about 300 feet from home plate but not all the way to the foul poles.
The City of Peoria owns and operates Peoria Sports Complex, home to the Mariners and Padres, and the netting there does not extend beyond either dugout. A Peoria spokesperson said that the netting is part of the stadium’s original design, and there are no plans to change it.
The Indians and Reds call Goodyear Ballpark home, and the length of netting is the same as at Peoria Sports Complex, but a spokesperson for the City of Goodyear said that the clubs and the city are discussing the possibility of lengthening the netting.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred last discussed foul ball netting in December 2019 when he committed all 30 teams to extend netting at their home ballparks “substantially beyond” the outfield end of each dugout.
Many teams decided then that they would extend netting from home plate to each foul pole. This includes the Diamondbacks, who extended Chase Field’s netting to each foul pole.
At Salt River Fields, however, the netting stops at the outfield end of each dugout. A team spokesperson said there were no plans, short-term, to extend the netting at Salt River Fields to match the netting at Chase Field.
The MLB has previously said that architectural differences between ballparks make a uniform standard impossible. There are also concerns that additional netting will impact the game by reducing the playing area and that more netting will create more obstructed views for more fans.
Advocacy groups pitch a possible solution
The inconsistency bothers Jordan Skopp, who believes an independent counsel should be paid to figure out which length and height for netting would keep fans safe at each ballpark.
Even Skopp admits that simply stringing netting from home plate to each foul pole at every park is not the answer, and he is not advocating for netting in foul air territory, where home run balls could also potentially injure fans.
He does believe, however, that more effort needs to be put into answer the safety question, and he believes fans should advocate for themselves.
“We need to stand up as fans,” Skopp said. “We need to demand that we should never be in a position to ever be maimed again. I think that’s a reasonable ask.”