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Another foul ball incident sparks talk about increased safety netting at MLB ballparks

After a foul ball injures a 4-year-old in Houston last week, the league considers ways to prevent batted ball injuries

ST. PETERSBURG — Just beyond the far end of both dugouts at Tropicana Field — right where the stadium’s the protective netting ends — five rows of seats jut out onto the field. The seats are among the closest to the action. This is where players typically come to sign autographs before games, toss baseballs into the stands, but it’s also the place in the stadium most susceptible to having a foul ball come into the stands.

It’s where Tampa resident Jamie Zingaretti has had his season tickets since the Rays’ inaugural season in 1998. His seats are right along the rail down the third-base line, holding an unobstructed view of home plate. He says they’re some of the best in the stadium. Not only does he have a good view of the field, but he can look into both dugouts and the Trop’s rightfield video board is right in front of him across the field.

But he also realizes the seats come with some responsibility. He always sits in the seat closer to the plate to protect his kids from foul balls that might shoot into the stands. On Thursday, he got two foul balls and his first instinct was to shield his 7-year-old daughter, Micah, from getting hit.

“It’s fun being right on the field,” Zingaretti said. “I know it’s dangerous, but I bring my mitt and we get used to it. You’re aware, just like I’m aware when I’m crossing the street or when I’m on something that’s dangerous. And you don’t really worry about it because you’re enjoying the game.”

Before last season, all 30 major-league teams decided to extend protective netting to the far side of both dugouts, a move that was made after a young girl was struck in the face by a foul ball at Yankee Stadium.

After another young girl was hit by a line drive into the seats on Wednesday night — a 4-year-old sitting just beyond the netting down the third-base line at Houston’s Minute Maid Park -— players, coaches and officials are again asking if the netting needs to extend further. The incident shook Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr., the hitter whose foul ball struck the girl. He ended up sobbing in the arms of a stadium security worker after going to check on the girl, who officials took to a local hospital.

The girl’s family reportedly asked for complete privacy and as of Sunday, there was no update on her status.

“I’ve seen so many balls go into the stands,” Rays pitcher Charlie Morton said. “It’s actually pretty incredible how many balls wind up not hitting somebody. But everybody forgets about those because nothing happens, you don’t see what could have been.”

“You just want people to be safe,” he added. “You don’t want them to get hurt, especially when they’re coming to a ballgame to enjoy it with their family. So it’s heartbreaking, especially when you see a little kid get hit.”

Tampa Bay Rays fan Jamie Zingaretti, from Tampa, and his daughter Micah sit near third base at the end of the protective netting during the game against the Minnesota Twins Thursday, May 30, 2019 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Zingaretti caught another foul ball in the next inning. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

Major League Baseball will continue to evaluate the need for more netting, but like last year, the initiative would likely have to come from a consensus of teams. Each stadium has different layouts that make mandating league-wide netting regulations difficult.

The Texas Rangers announced this week they previously had plans to extend netting 150 feet past the end of the dugouts at their new ballpark opening next year.

“The events at (Wednesday’s) game were extremely upsetting,” the league said in a statement released Thursday. "We send our best wishes to the child and family involved. Clubs have significantly expanded netting and their inventory of protected seats in recent years. With (Wednesday’s) event in mind, we will continue our efforts on this important issue.”

When MLB issued recommendations to extend netting to the near end of the dugouts within 70 feet of home plate after the 2015 season, the Rays complied by adding netting behind the Tropicana Field camera wells. A small opening between that net and the backstop net was filled after a Steven Souza Jr. foul ball injured a fan in 2016. Before the 2018 season, the Rays extended their 29-foot high nets by 80 feet to the end of the dugouts, stopping right before that outcrop of seats down the lines.

As of Sunday, the Rays had no comment about the possibility of increased netting.

Kevin Schultz attended Thursday’s game and upon seeing how close he was sitting in the unprotected seats just beyond the first-base dugout, he said he wished he had brought his glove. His 7-year-old son, Roman, brought his, but it still didn’t diminish his worry about the potential of getting hit by a foul ball.

“Every pitch I’m nervous,” said Schultz, a Winter Garden resident. “I really don’t like them sitting on that side. But they have their gloves and somebody will jump up in front of them. But I’m very nervous. We go to college baseball games and we’ll sit behind the dugouts because you can get closer spots, but I’m nervous every pitch.”

Schultz said it wouldn't bother him if netting was extended further. Zingaretti said he'd likely change his seats if it extended to his seats.

“No, I don’t want nets,” Zingaretti said. “Yeah, we’ve been close to getting hit by one, the bouncers are the hardest ones because you never know how they’re going to bounce, they skip off in different ways you’re not expecting. We’ve been in those seats a long time and no one’s ever been hit.”

Tampa Bay Rays fan Jamie Zingaretti, from Tampa, protect his daughter, Micah, as he catches a foul ball near third base at the end of the protective netting during the game against the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, May 30, 2019 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. The same fan caught another foul ball in the next inning. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said he believes players would be for more extended netting if it increases safety.

"It might make some fans mad because they want to not look through a net or have that so-close-to-the-player feel," Kiermaier said. "Being separated by a net might taint that for some people, but at the same time, safety is first and foremost.The exit velocities and how hard guys are hitting the ball, foul balls super close, it's just petrifying. Hopefully we continue to try to improve the safety with whatever necessary steps those are. I don't know. Maybe the netting needs to go even farther or higher."

Data shows that the volume of foul balls are being hit in the stands has increased. The number of foul balls is up by nearly 12 percent since 1998, according to FiveThirtyEight research done before this season, and 2017 marked the first time that there were more foul balls than fair balls put in play.

The consensus explanation for the increase in foul balls is that pitchers are getting better, but the way they're pitching could be leading into more high-velocity foul balls going into the stands.

Morton points out that pitchers are throwing harder, but they're also throwing more breaking balls than ever, especially early in counts, so when hitters try to catch up to fastballs they're often late making contact, and that means more foul balls are being hit into the seats at high speeds.

“I think with guys throwing harder, you’re going to get more of those late line drives,” Morton said. "You’re going to get more of those line drives where guys are still barreling the ball but the angle of it, the guys are late so it goes into foul territory.

“Is there something that is a little more transparent that would slow the ball down?” Morton asked out loud. “Maybe you don’t have to have something that would completely stop the ball, but sometimes the ball comes off the bat 100 mph and by the time it goes into those parts of the stands, it’s probably still going 90, upper 80′s. Maybe they could do something that could slow the ball."

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieInTheYard.