Bucs, Curve to extend their protective netting

It takes baseball a long time to make changes, as we all know, but there finally will be a big and very welcome change coming to some local ballparks.

The Pirates announced earlier this week that they will be extending the protective netting to the end of each dugout at PNC Park.

The Curve also have plans to extend the netting at Peoples Natural Gas Field. They hope to have the project completed at some point this season, although it might have to wait until next offseason.

“It’s time,” Curve general manager Derek Martin said. “Too many broken bats and balls going into the stands. And with technology, people looking at their phones all the time, it’s for safety reasons.”

Honestly, I’ve long wondered why anyone would sit close behind the dugouts at a baseball game. Extremely dangerous foul balls and flying bats scream into the stands, and even if you’re paying very close attention — which many people simply are not — there’s so little time to react that it’s often impossible to avoid getting smacked hard.

Thankfully, there is now a growing trend in the majors and minors to extend the nets to the end of the dugouts, which will drastically decrease the number of fans who are beaned by balls and bats each year.

Now, it cannot go without saying that some fans don’t want this at all. They want to feel close to the action behind the dugouts, and they don’t want their view obstructed in any way by the nets.

Addressing that concern, the Pirates included this as part of a Q&A about the netting on their website:

“The new netting will be made of the most transparent, knotless netting material possible and will have fewer vertical cables than the previous system. This should limit, if not eliminate, any sight line obstructions.”

Fans attending Curve games starting next month will notice there’s a new and more transparent net behind home plate at PNG Field. That will be a welcome sight.

And it will certainly be a terrific addition whenever the Curve do get to adding the nets to the end of the dugouts.

Back in the 2013 season, 10-year-old Zach Konicky from Johnstown was sitting behind one dugout when the Curve’s Gift Ngoepe lost the grip on his bat and saw it go flying into the stands. The bat hit Zach in the face and broke his nose, and he was fortunate to have avoided a more serious injury.

“I saw the bat for a split second, but I had absolutely no reaction time,” Zach, now 14, said this week.

“I definitely feel lucky because from what my parents tell me, it could have been a lot worse.”

His mom, Wendy, said the incident didn’t diminish Zach’s love for the sport. He’s now an 8th grader at Conemaugh Valley and plays baseball as a pitcher and first baseman.

Still, Zach is very, very lucky. He could have suffered a permanent injury from that flying bat that would have changed his life forever. He believes adding a protective netting at ballparks will be a big benefit.

“I don’t know how many people get hit with baseball bats, but I think (a net) would reduce the amount of injuries,” he said.

Major League Baseball made a recommendation to teams in December of 2015 to add more protective netting. It didn’t make any demands for clubs to adhere to, but at least the issue finally appeared on the league’s radar enough to take a first step.

One regional ballpark that got out in front of this issue is Medlar Field at Lubrano Park, home of the State College Spikes. That park added netting to the end of the dugouts way back in 2010.

The big difference there is that Medlar Field also is home to the Penn State baseball team, and the university approached the Spikes about adding the extra netting. You’re talking about metal bats and foul balls coming off even faster in college ball, and Penn State took steps long before most in professional ball to protect fans behind the dugouts.

Spikes president Jason Dambach was in Frisco, Texas last season when that Double-A team added netting to the end of the dugouts. He recalled, “Multiple times a game, balls hit that (net), and you think, ‘Where would that have hit?'”

Exactly. How many times at a game do you see a laser foul ball hit into the stands and think to yourself, “I hope it didn’t hit anybody.”

Well, it probably did. And that person probably took a big bruise (at best) home as an unwelcome souvenir.

Common sense has long dictated extending the netting to protect more fans. It’s good to see baseball is finally coming to its senses on the subject.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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