November 17, 2017

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Crying foul on the nanny state

It is one of the last refuges from the nanny state.

Or at least that’s what ballparks used to be.

In an age when even our coffee to go now comes with a warning that the contents might be hot, one of the many charms of the modern ballpark was that it was one of the last places remaining in our society where individuals were still expected to actually take a little responsibility for their own safety.

Big brother has passed bylaws that will save you — whether you want to be saved or not — from the sugar in your soda and a calamitous 24-inch fall off your deck, but head out to the ballpark and it was still mostly up to you to make sure you didn’t take a screaming foul ball off the noggin.

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It is one of the last refuges from the nanny state.

Or at least that’s what ballparks used to be.

JOE BRYKSA / FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The days of catching foul balls at are numbered at Shaw Park because it’s no longer really a question of if the new nets will be going up, but when.</p>

JOE BRYKSA / FREE PRESS FILES

The days of catching foul balls at are numbered at Shaw Park because it’s no longer really a question of if the new nets will be going up, but when.

In an age when even our coffee to go now comes with a warning that the contents might be hot, one of the many charms of the modern ballpark was that it was one of the last places remaining in our society where individuals were still expected to actually take a little responsibility for their own safety.

Big brother has passed bylaws that will save you — whether you want to be saved or not — from the sugar in your soda and a calamitous 24-inch fall off your deck, but head out to the ballpark and it was still mostly up to you to make sure you didn’t take a screaming foul ball off the noggin.

While there have been screens behind home plate in Major League Baseball parks for more than a century, fans sitting along the first and third-base lines were mostly left unprotected, engaged as they were in an unspoken contract in which they agreed to pay attention to the game in exchange for an unobstructed view of play.

For the better part of a century, that system worked pretty well. People would pay money to go to a ball game and then they would, get this, actually watch the game once they got inside.

Foul balls would get sprayed into the crowd — often at alarming velocity — but as long as everyone was paying attention to the game, incidents of serious injury were so few and far between that, statistically, it was said you were infinitely safer watching a game while sitting in a ballpark than you were watching it on TV in your own living room.

And then Steve Jobs ruined baseball for everyone.

As long as there have been smartphones, there have been people taking those smartphones to the ballpark and getting hit by foul balls because their noses were in their phones instead of their heads in the game.

With that, a system that had worked pretty well for more than a century suddenly got insanely dangerous.

Almost nightly, you’d see images on the internet or sports highlight shows of blissfully unaware fans getting hit or almost hit by foul-ball rockets because they were checking their Facebook feeds instead of noticing that their expensive third-row seats right above the first-base dugout are also directly in the line of fire of that right-handed hitter who just stepped into the box.

(The reverse, of course, is also true — you have to pay extra attention if you’re sitting along the third-base line if there’s a left-handed hitter up. News you can use — brought to you by the Winnipeg Free Press).

Now, I’d like to tell you the result of all this was that smartphone users realized they needed to put down their phones and actually start living their lives — if only to save them — while they were at baseball games.

But you already know how this ends — with Major League Baseball recommending two years ago that the screens behind home plate be extended 70 feet up both the first and third-base lines.

Hardcore baseball fans howled in protest, demanding to know why they were being punished with an obstructed view for sitting in some of the most expensive seats in the house simply because of the sins of a smartphone generation with five-second attention spans.

The answer, of course, was the same as it always is in these sorts of things, even though nobody actually has the audacity to ever say it — because we as a society only move as fast as our slowest members.

(It’s the same reason we continue to have highway speed limits that were designed for the automobile clunker of the 1950s instead of the sleek, computer-assisted machines of today. But that’s a column for another day).

And the speed bumps just keep coming. Ten MLB teams as of this season have extended the netting even farther than MLB’s recommendation so that it now reaches the end of the dugouts, instead of just 70 feet down the line.

Earlier this summer, the New York Mets made headlines by becoming the first MLB team to extend the netting even farther than that, installing netting to a height of at least eight feet halfway into the outfield at Citi Field.

Predictably, Mets fans who actually watch the game when they go to a ballpark have been howling in protest all summer. Just as predictably, you can expect to see more teams soon do the same, out of fear of litigation more than any real concerns about the safety of a fan sitting 175 feet down the first-base line.

All of which makes Winnipeg’s Shaw Park notable as one of the few remaining ballparks that still relies on nothing more than the original home-plate screen — and the good judgment of Winnipeg Goldeyes fans.

Goldeyes general manager Andrew Collier told me this week his team is wrestling with the issue, torn between keeping inattentive fans safe while at the same time not obstructing the views of some of the club’s longest-serving season-ticket holders, who long ago chose their seats down the lines precisely because they didn’t want an obstructed view.

But, Collier conceded, it’s no longer really a question of if the new nets will be going up, but when.

"Our plan at this point is to put them up to the end of the dugouts," Collier says. "And we know we’re going to get pushback from a lot of fans because of it."

I watched most of a Goldeyes' win over the St. Paul Saints Monday night and, for what it’s worth, counted four screamers into the seats along the first and third-base lines that could have done damage if someone hadn’t been paying attention.

But that’s the thing — they were paying attention and everyone involved was fine. Collier figures there are "five or less" incidents a season where Goldeyes fans get hurt by foul balls badly enough — or are cut — that they require something beyond cursory medical attention.

Now, I’d argue the easiest solution to all this isn’t to diminish the viewing experience of everyone, but rather to make sure everyone knows the risks when they sit in seats that are most directly in the line of fire.

If you choose to sit there anyway, then spend the game playing Angry Pigs on your phone? Well, even in this nanny state, a certain number of the very slowest among us are going to get left behind.

I’ve covered a lot of baseball over the years and it says something that I cannot count the number of players, managers and front-office types who’ve told me over the years they would never allow their own families to sit in those seats immediately above the dugouts.

A 90-m.p.h. fastball that’s lined foul will be travelling at speeds exceeding 110 m.p.h coming back out, according to the physics types, which is a big ask for a trained athlete with a glove to knock down, much less a distracted bro with a beer in one hand and his smartphone in the other.

It’s a great seat, but also a risky one. And with great reward also comes at least a little personal responsibility.

Or at least it used to.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, August 16, 2017 at 3:16 PM CDT: Headline changed

5:49 PM: FInal edit

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