Ford: Hey, baseball, extend the nets now

Looking 50 years into the future at a Phillies home game, there will be many differences to note at Peco Nuclear Stadium. The virtual hot dogs. The digital, interactive scoreboards on the back of each seat. The Phanatic dressed like Elvis.

All right, not everything will have changed, but one thing is certain: There will be netting from foul pole to foul pole at the very least, and the entire lower seating area might well be protected by nets.

You can mourn the passing of the intimacy of the game, of the connection between fans and the field, of the time when the only barriers separating us from the players was one of imagination. Mourn it all you like. That's going to be gone, and it probably won't be 50 years before it takes place.

Phillies shortstop Freddy Galvis made his plea for greater fan safety this week after a foul line drive off his bat on Saturday night hit a young girl in the face at Citizens Bank Park. An average line drive into the stands travels between 80 and 100 mph. Depending on how close the fan is sitting, the ball's target has about a second to react. Even those paying attention to the game, a rapidly diminishing percentage, can't be expected to avoid injury every time.

"What year is this? 2016? It's 2016, and 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?" Galvis said.

That's exactly baseball's perceived dilemma as it inches toward the future. The fans might not be as willing to give them the money if all the best seats in the house are behind nets. This past winter, Major League Baseball recommended that home-plate netting be extended to the near edge of the dugouts, and 19 teams, including the Phillies complied. The 11 other teams were already in compliance, and three teams, the Nationals, Royals, and Twins, went even farther, extending netting to the far end of the dugouts.

It was a minor adjustment for baseball, which has used the "assumption of risk" waiver on the back of each ticket to balance the dual goals of attracting fans and avoiding liability if something should happen to them. The courts have begun to take a harder look at those liability issues, and so the game took a half-step that at least shows a willingness to address the concerns.

The truth, as any baseball fans knows, is the same in the stands as it is on the field. The ball will find you. Pushing the nets another 10 feet down the lines, which is about what was recommended this season, still leaves great swaths of seating exposed. Some of the worst screaming line drives enter the stands way down the line beyond the dugouts.

According to research done by Bloomberg.com, there are somewhere around 1,700 to 1,800 incidents every season in which a fan suffers an injury from a foul ball or a flying bat. The number is just about the same as the number of batters hit by a pitch each season. Most of the injuries are slight, but some are catastrophic. It will keep going like that, and then someone will die, and things will change.

That's what happened with hockey after a girl was killed at a Columbus Blue Jackets game in 2002, two days before her 14th birthday. The next season, despite complaints from many fans, the NHL mandated higher plastic glass walls and netting behind each of the goals to collect errant slap shots.

That change quickly became accepted, and if fans noticed the netting, they didn't notice it for long. The same will be true for baseball, and it would be nice if it doesn't take a death to get it accomplished. It will, however.

It is true that many fans are hit because they aren't paying attention to the game. They are eating or playing with their phones or talking, doing almost anything but watching out for a 100-mph hardball lasering toward their head. Even if they are watching, however, they can't necessarily protect themselves and baseball has an obligation to do it for them as much as possible.

That protection is being provided in incremental measures as the game tries to stay one jump ahead of the lawsuit posse and still keep its pastoral feel. The nets will creep down the foul lines eventually, however. It is inevitable and, like it or not, it's what should be done before that young baseball fan celebrating her birthday with her father is lying dead between the rows of seats.

Let the nets go up now, because they are going to go up. I'll meet you at the park in 2066, and we'll see who's right.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports