NEW YORK — Alarmed by the number of fans injured by foul balls at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, a member of the New York City Council is preparing to propose legislation that would require those stadiums to construct protective netting to reach the ends of both dugouts.
It might be the first time a legislative body has jumped into the debate about safety at Major League Baseball stadiums and what should be done to protect fans closer to the action — and more readily distracted by mobile devices — than ever before.
The league has taken steps to address a rash of serious injuries to fans sitting in the lower sections in recent years, including issuing a recommendation before the 2016 season that clubs extend the protective netting from behind home plate to the inner portion of each dugout, or 70 feet from home plate. The New York Yankees and the New York Mets, as well as numerous other teams, complied with that recommendation.
But Rafael Espinal, a City Council member from Brooklyn, does not believe that is enough to reduce the more than 1,750 fan injuries from foul balls throughout baseball each season.
His bill, which is to be introduced this month, would require the netting to be extended to 90 feet from home plate, which should protect fans seated behind both dugouts and slightly up each foul line. He said that such an extension could significantly curtail the harm caused by screaming foul balls and improve the fan experience.
“I’m baffled by why this is such a big issue,” Espinal said. “You have the money to put up the netting. You would avoid the headaches of having to deal with injured fans. Your players would feel less guilty when they go up to bat.”
He added, “Everyone can enjoy the game in peace.”
The Pittsburgh Pirates recently announced that they would extend their netting beyond 70 feet, although only a third of the teams in baseball have done so. The Philadelphia Phillies made their decision after a young girl was struck in the face by a foul ball off the bat of Phillies infielder Freddy Galvis in August. The incident left Galvis shaken.
“What year is this? 2016?” Galvis told reporters after the game. “Fans keep getting hit by foul balls when you’re supposed to have a net to protect the fans. The fans give you the money, so you should protect them, right?”
Noting incidents like the one in Philadelphia, Espinal, the chairman of the Committee on Consumer Affairs, said he did not want to wait for the Yankees and the Mets to join the others who have come to the conclusion that more netting is needed.
“The longer we wait, the more time would pass that fans would continue to be at risk,” Espinal said. “If we wait another year, who knows how many people are going to get hurt by foul balls? I think we should take proactive measures to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Spokesmen for the Yankees and the Mets declined to comment, and there was no immediate response to a request for comment from Major League Baseball. A spokesman for the Major League Baseball Players Association said it would not comment until it had a chance to review the bill. “The MLBPA continues to be a proponent of increased netting in an effort to increase ballpark safety and comfort for the fans,” the union said.
A spokeswoman for Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, said she would review the legislation when it was proposed.
Espinal’s interest in the issue arose after a meeting last month with Andy Zlotnick, a fan who was struck in the eye by a ball in Yankee Stadium in 2011. Zlotnick, who lost a lawsuit against the club seeking damages that he is still appealing, has become an advocate for better safety regulations at the ballparks.
“I didn’t understand why all these people were getting hurt in ballparks, and yet baseball wasn’t regulating itself to fix the problem,” Zlotnick said. “So I raised my hand to try to get the attention of anybody who would listen.”
Zlotnick was seated in right field, about 150 to 200 feet from home plate, when he was injured. So a 20-foot extension would not have prevented his accident.
“We’ll take it as they come,” Zlotnick said. “It’s incremental change. I think it will protect a lot of people behind the dugouts.”
According to an analysis by Bloomberg in 2014, an average of 1,750 fans are injured every year by foul balls (some estimates place the number even higher). That compares with 1,651 batters who were hit by pitches in 2016.
“You’re pretty much saying that the fans are more at risk of getting hit by a ball than actual baseball players are,” Espinal said. “That’s not something to take lightly.”
According to C&H Baseball, a company that supplies backstop netting, additional netting can cost from $15,000 to $100,000 to install. Espinal said the cost should not prohibit teams from providing fans with additional peace of mind.
“We just want them to come to the table and recognize how needed the netting actually is,” Espinal said. “I wouldn’t want to have to legislate my way to that point. This is kind of a last drastic measure. This is our push to them to do right by their fans.”