Flimsy look deceiving with foul-ball netting

Space-age material is immensely strong

April 02, 2002|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

The Orioles yesterday unveiled the latest look in Camden Yards decor. But the material draped along both dugouts is far from frilly.

The high-tech netting, made of the same stuff that can stop speeding bullets, snare shrimp and power sailboats, is there to protect players and coaches from errant foul balls.

The polyethylene fiber is called Spectra 18 and can be found in everything from bulletproof vests and military helmets to maritime products such as yacht sails and fishing nets.

That's evidence enough for Boog Powell, angler, barbecue baron and baseball great: "Some of that netting they use for shrimp boats could stop a cannonball."

Manager Mike Hargrove also approved of the new shield. "If it keeps me from getting hit in the head, it'll be great," he said.

Club officials believe the three-foot, high-tensile trellis will prevent mishaps like one that felled Don Zimmer, the Yankees' bench coach, who was conked by a foul liner during a postseason game in New York in 1999.

Zimmer escaped serious injury, but the incident prompted New York to erect its own dugout screen the next spring. Other teams have followed suit, including Houston, Colorado and Pittsburgh.

The Pirates' netting stopped 10 or 12 batted balls from ricocheting around the dugouts last year, a Pirates spokesman said.

Emerging from the Yankees' clubhouse yesterday, Zimmer peered out at Camden Yards' new mesh barrier and gave it a thumbs- up. "You've got to play it safe, especially in these new, smaller parks," he said. "Me, I only got hit off a half-swing [by then-Yankee Chuck Knoblauch] and it still stunned me. You should've seen the blood."

It's the fans sitting close by whom Zimmer frets about these days. "I've seen some nasty line drives go down the third-base line," he said. "Then you see [ushers] waving their arms because someone's been hit. All you can do then is wait for the cheer - or hope for the cheer - which means it's OK."

Over the years, major-league players have been injured after being struck in the head by foul balls in the dugout. Angels pitcher Matt Keough lapsed into a coma and nearly died after being hit by a line drive during spring training in 1992. Keough never played again.

A year later, Glenn Davis, the Orioles' hard-luck first baseman, was knocked unconscious by a drive off the bat of teammate Jeffrey Hammonds. On Mother's Day 1994, Atlanta's Greg Maddux got hit in the left cheek, but bounced back to win the Cy Young Award that year.

The only known spectator fatality occurred in 1970, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, when a 14-year-old boy was hit in the head by a line drive. His family filed - and lost - a $1 million suit against the team.

Concern over fan safety has heightened in recent weeks after the death of a hockey fan who was hit in the head by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game last month. The victim, a 13-year-old girl celebrating her birthday, died two days later.

"I was disturbed by that," said Bill Mulligan, an Orioles fan sitting in a lower box seat behind third base. "Her death was unfortunate, but the numbers don't support any fear on fans' part. Every day is filled with risks; sitting here is safer than driving a car."

In any case, Mulligan said he sees no reason to put up netting that would guard the crowd. "You wouldn't feel as close to the players," the Gaithersburg resident said. "A barrier would kill the atmosphere, impede the game. Isn't this why kids bring their gloves?"

Sometimes it's the bats, not the balls, that imperil people. Two years ago, the splintered barrel of Brady Anderson's bat flew 100 feet down the first-base line and crashed at the feet of a child in front of her in the lower box seats, said Mary McGeady of Rodgers Forge. "You've got to watch every pitch," she said.

McGeady said the little girl left happy. Ushers retrieved the bat handle and presented it to her.

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