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Fan Safety Should Be Top Priority

Baseball’s ride to October has been a wild one, from Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge chasing home run records to the remarkable rebirths of the playoff-bound Diamondbacks, Rockies and Twins to Jose Altuve chasing an MVP trophy.

All that has somehow distracted us from the horrific tragedies of one hurricane after another and the cacophony of the divides in our country.

I think I revisited Mookie Betts’ Sept. 24 highlights, which included two outfield assists, a game-tying double and a an Enos Slaughter-like, game-winning dash, a half-dozen times.

But the image of this final month that has remained with so many of my friends, some who understand exit velocity, some who just enjoy the game for its timeless stream of consciousness, came Sept. 20 in Yankee Stadium.

The scene followed Todd Frazier’s line-drive foul ball that struck a little girl along the third base line: Frazier on a knee, Byron Buxton praying, Eduardo Escobar in tears.

It was a place in time where every owner of every major league team had to realize this is not 1955. Exit velocities are absurd. Pitches are thrown as much as 10 mph harder and come off the bats in a blur, at any time shooting into crowds.

Worse, some fans’ attention may be divided by their phones or by conversation, while some fans may be sitting in rows of seats that have slowly been moved closer and closer to the field of play.

When the Red Sox had three such instances in the course of a year in 2014 and 2015, commissioner Rob Manfred understood the gravity of the situation. He understands the importance of all baseball security that Major League Baseball can try to control.

It’s one thing to weave through the dangers of the L.A. Freeway, but it’s another in a ballpark. Manfred wanted teams to put up protective netting. Some clubs were hesitant.

In 2014 at Fenway Park, Stephanie Tallbin was upstairs at the park’s restaurant, and because some glass had not been replaced, a foul ball struck her in the head, caused serious injury and led to a lawsuit against Red Sox owner John Henry.

In 2015, Tonya Carpenter suffered serious injuries when hit by a fractured bat, and later that season, Stephanie Wapenski was hit between the eyes with a foul ball and had to be rushed to the hospital.

On Opening Day 2016, the Red Sox had installed netting that extended to the seats in the bowl between first and third base. Some complained. Hey, I bought season tickets at Fenway for more than 20 years behind home plate. I often thanked the grounds crew that there were no tears in that screen and that it missed fewer pitches than Joe West (just kidding, Joe).

By Opening Day 2017, 10 teams had expanded their netting. After the Yankees’ incident, the Giants, Mariners, Padres, Reds, Rockies and Yankees announced they will erect such screens. This is not about legal action. It is not about being denied sight lines or some Constitutional right. It is about right. Period.

The commissioner understands that his job is to manage a billion-dollar industry, but the people who pay to attend games are human elements to that game.

I have friends in front offices who strongly believe that these nettings should be expanded, especially in parks like Fenway, where the stands seem to jut out right behind the third base coach.

The best idea is to extend them, then put all the nettings on a roller like a theater curtain that is rolled up before games and between innings, to allow players to flip baseballs to kids or hand them to batboys to turn them over to children.

Baseball legislates beanballs and takeout slides. They try to properly line outfield walls for player safety.

However, it’s the fans’ game, and on the back of every ticket should read a promise from each team and from MLB that they will do everything reasonable within their power to ensure the safety of every paying customer.

When every stadium is netted next Opening Day, there should be a small image of Todd Frazier and Byron Buxton and Eduardo Escobar with the message, “We Care.”

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