CHICAGO — The quaint signs around Wrigley Field’s lower concourse show a cute stylized bear cub with a mitt in pursuit of a fly ball.
“Be Alert for Foul Balls!” the signs warn ticket holders on the way to their seats.
Thanks to amped-up exit velocities of modern-day baseball, however, the old signs are no substitute for protective netting.
Alert or not, that poor little bear is likely to be nailed by a scorching line drive one of these days — even if it’s not distracted by the massive video boards, a mobile phone or any of the other prevalent 2019 ballpark distractions the way flesh-and-blood fans are.
Every few days around the majors, it seems, some fan gets taken away for observation after being struck by a foul ball.
Players such as the Cubs’ Albert Almora Jr., who in May inadvertently sent a 4-year-old at a Cubs-Astros game in Houston to the emergency room with what her family lawyer reported was a cracked skull, have called for teams to extend the safety netting, which only last year was stretched to at least the end of dugouts to prevent exactly this sort of ugliness.
Yet even as some major-league teams have announced plans to extend the netting — and the White Sox across town were the first to install it from foul pole to foul pole — the Cubs say they don’t know what they’re going to do.
“We are currently exploring and researching expansion of protective netting,” team spokesman Julian Green said by email. “No decision has been made to date.
“Given the pitch and slope of our field walls, which are not a straight line, there is a bit more complexity to installing and securing protective netting to the foul pole. We will review all available options to determine the safest and enjoyable environment for our fans.”
It’s true the Cubs’ freshly refurbished and modernized 1914 ballpark — a relic of faster games, deader baseballs and more focused fans — isn’t as easily retrofitted for safety netting as others.
Plus, some of the paying customers in the line of fire have made clear they want no such barrier between them and the action.
But it’s not as though the issue of fan safety is going away. Extended netting seems inevitable — if not to the foul poles, then at least farther down the line.
Even if a specific design and plan to install it can’t be finalized yet, surely it makes sense to commit to some extension of the netting, not just for the Cubs but for all of the teams that have yet to say they will increase the protection.
Green noted that when the Cubs in 2018 joined every other ballclub in extending their nets at least to the far end of the dugouts at Wrigley Field and their spring training home in Arizona, Sloane Park, it resulted in a 60% reduction in foul-ball injuries last year compared with 2017.
Why not reduce the number of injuries further? Why can’t the confines of Wrigley be as safe as they are friendly?
The Cubs obviously don’t want their fans at risk, and the club has made so many other changes to the ballpark to marry early 20th-century nostalgia with the realities of early 21st-century sports.
One more alteration can’t possibly hurt, but foul balls rocketing off the bat at 100-plus mph can.
Fans throughout baseball are closer than ever to the action. Players are stronger and more powerful. Besides the balls, there are bats slipping out of players’ hands or breaking apart.
An oft-cited 2014 analysis by Bloomberg News found 1,750 major-league fans are injured each year, primarily by foul balls and broken bats. That’s more than the 1,536 batters hit by pitches in 2013, according to Bloomberg, and those guys wear helmets and other protective gear.
Not all fan injuries are serious, but some are absolutely gruesome, potentially fatal. Little wonder ballplayers such as Almora are left distraught.
Still, there are fans who want to scramble for a souvenir baseball or think the mesh is too much of a barrier — even if it’s for their own good.
They often mention the nets pose an obstacle to interacting with players and getting autographs while warming up, although the Nationals say they will be able to raise their nets by the dugouts before games for that very purpose.
Detractors say fans who are going to have their phones out and children shouldn’t sit in vulnerable areas of the ballpark, although you’ll see scores of fans of all sizes and shapes apparently on social media, texting or on MLB’s app during every baseball telecast.
Pole-to-pole netting is common in Japan. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, however, has said he is reluctant to make extended protection mandatory at least in part because of varying ballpark designs, such as Wrigley’s.
When netting finally is extended, some people will grumble. But in time they, too, will accept it as ordinary, like goalie masks in hockey and seat belts in cars.
Extended netting reduces the likelihood of a fan interfering with a ball in play.
That can’t be all bad for men, women, children — or even cartoon bears.