It happens in the blink of an eye: A pitch arrives at the plate, the batter swings and a baseball or a bat rockets into the stands. In most cases, there is no harm beyond a few spilled nachos. But sometimes a fan fails to get out of the way, with grim consequences.

Last fall, a toddler sitting with her grandparents at Yankee Stadium was struck in the face by a 105-mph foul that broke her nose and orbital bones and caused bleeding in her brain. A Schaumburg man sued the Cubs last year after an errant drive left him with facial fractures and unable to see out of one eye. In 2010, a 39-year-old mother of two attending a minor league game in Texas suffered a fatal injury from a drive that hit her head.

These are not as rare as you might think. A Bloomberg News investigation found that some 1,750 fans are injured each year at major league games.

Major League Baseball has been quick to adopt technological changes to keep fans entertained, even though it means some of them spend more time looking at their smartphones than at the field. It has been slower to address the dangers of such distraction for those sitting close to the plate but beyond the protective netting behind it.

In 2015, it recommended that teams extend the nets to the inside edge of each dugout. Most teams, to their credit, went even further, installing protection to the far end of each dugout. Both the Cubs and White Sox have committed to follow suit.

Last month, with spring training fast approaching, the last two holdouts, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Tampa Bay Rays, said they would do the same before opening day. Commissioner Rob Manfred had been expected to mandate such changes.

He and the teams are wise to look for ways to make the game safer for spectators. Some fans don’t like to watch behind nets, but most quickly forget their presence—and none wants to suffer or see a serious injury during what is supposed to be an enjoyable diversion.

But the change was not entirely altruistic. A New York City councilman had proposed an ordinance requiring the Yankees and Mets to string netting all the way to the foul poles—which is the norm in Japan. Some injuries have led to lawsuits, and delaying improvements amounted to inviting more legal troubles.

The professional sport has long enjoyed the shield of the “Baseball Rule,” which is printed on tickets to warn that spectators attend at their own risk. But that protection, though recognized by the courts, has been called into question by the nature of modern ballparks.

“People can now interact using their cellphones while sitting in their seats,” Chicago attorney Timothy Liam Epstein told The Seattle Times. “And so, you now have venue owners and teams that are participating actively in individual, targeted distractions that would seem to be a relatively easy way for a plaintiff’s attorney to defeat a presumption of the case getting tossed under the ‘Baseball Rule.’” Last year, the Atlanta Braves reached a settlement with the father of a 6-year-old girl who suffered a fractured skull from a foul ball.

Team owners would rather not write that kind of check. Fans would rather not incur that kind of injury. With expanded netting is in place, both will be a lot safer.

—Chicago Tribune

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