Busch Stadium Photo: DSM Dyneema
Busch Stadium

MLB: Hitting Safety Out of the Park

Jan. 23, 2018
The first thing you think about when you go to a baseball game isn't what Major League Baseball is doing to protect your safety, but maybe it should be.

On Aug. 11, 1929, Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run out of the park at Cleveland’s League Park baseball stadium. The Babe was pretty sure he was going to hit his 500th home run that day, even telling H. Clay Folger, chief of the police for League Park, that he planned to hit the ball out of the park and that he wanted Folger to “find the kid who gets the ball and bring him to me. I’d kinda like to save that one,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s story about the game.

The ball landed on Lexington Avenue, where it was picked up by a young fan, Jake Geiser, who the local newspaper called “a street urchin.” He was convinced to hand the ball over to the Babe for a different autographed baseball and $20 so that Babe Ruth could keep his memento.

These days, ball stadiums are massive cathedrals to the sport, and it’s rare for a ball to be hit outside the park. What happens now are home runs and foul balls that end up in the stands. It’s exciting when that happens; everyone scrambles until someone victoriously holds up the ball.

What happens less often is that a line drive or a foul ball hits an unsuspecting spectator, causing injuries. On Sept. 20, a line drive at Yankee Stadium by Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier – traveling at an estimated 100 mph when it left his bat – struck a young fan sitting in the stands. She was transported to a local hospital for treatment and is expected to fully recover.

Baseball, particularly Major League Baseball (MLB) as well as its minor league teams because of the sheer power of the batters, has a safety challenge: Protect the people sitting in the stands from injury but accommodate those fans who want the full fan experience.

MLB Recommends Changes to Safety Netting

In December 2015, MLB recommended that teams strengthen the safety netting in their parks. The league recommended that teams add safety netting or some other type of barrier device. Teams will be encouraged to add netting, or some other type of protective barrier to shield fans sitting between the near ends of both dugouts and within 70 feet of home plate.

According to a report on MLB.com, Commissioner Rob Manfred said the organization “prides itself on providing fans in our ballparks with unparalleled proximity and access to our players and the game taking place on the field.”

But he added, it is important that fans have the option of sitting behind safety netting.

“This recommendation attempts to balance the need for an adequate number of seating options with our desire to preserve the interactive pregame and in-game fan experience that often centers around the dugouts, where fans can catch foul balls, see their favorite players up close and, if they are lucky, catch a tossed ball or other souvenir,” Manfred is quoted as saying.

And that’s where safety gloves and ballistic vests, or at least the technology used to provide cut protection and stop bullets in those important safety items, come in.

Innovative Product Design to Protect Fan Experience

In a memo dated Oct. 11, 2017 and sent to club CEOs, presidents, operations director and legal counsels, Dan Halem, chief legal counsel for MLB, advised them that the commissioner’s office had “engaged a product design firm to investigate potential ways to improve visibility for fans sitting behind protective netting at Major League ballparks. As part of this project, the design firm looked at a variety of concepts that might make netting less noticeable to fans in the ballpark, including altering the size and shapes of the openings in the netting, and changing the material, color and installation process for the netting.”

As a result of the design firm’s investigation of available products, the league noted, “As part of this process, a manufacturer, NET Systems, through their exclusive distributor, Promats Athletics, has agreed to work with the clubs to make their most popular product – 1.2mm Dyneema fiber Ultracross knotless netting – available in this color for installation in your ballpark.”

DSM Dyneema/Net Systems/Promats Athletics: Hitting a Home Run

EHS Today recently met with Dan Oliver and Xzalivar White from Net Systems, Kevin DeVantier and Christina Wood from Promats Athletics and Patrick Smith and Crandall Turner from DSM Dyneema to discover how the partnership between the three companies and with MLB came about.

Oliver said his company “reached out to Dyneema about five years ago, looking for Dyneema products that could be used in netting that would set us apart from the other netting companies.”

Traditionally, steel wire has been used in netting systems. “Steel wire can be very heavy and steel wire can break, creating additional safety hazards and causing injuries such as cuts and injuries from recoil,” said Smith. DSM is the manufacturer of Black Dyneema fiber, the material used in the netting. “The Dyneema product is much stronger and longer-lasting than steel wire.”

NET Systems predominantly was known for making commercial fishing nets. The company developed the Ultracross Netting system, which is a knotless net, perfect for uses where the net is being used as a barrier, since it allows a larger and less-obstructed field of vision.The two companies were able to create something close to “invisible netting,” added Oliver. “It allowed us to get our netting onto the field.”

The company that brought it onto the field, Promats Athletics, is known for its expertise in designing and installing netting systems.

“A push started at stadiums to protect people sitting closer to the action because injuries were occurring. There was a need to address that without upsetting the fans,” said Wood.

Netting systems needed to be durable and low profile and could not have a lot of visual impact to distract or block the fans from the action on the field. The first Dyneema/NET Systems/Promats Athletics nets were installed in March 2014 by the dugouts at Fenway Park.

Fenway Park Photo: DSM Dyneema

And the rest, as they say, is history. Promats estimates Ultracross systems were in 15 MLB stadiums prior to this offseason, and they have received multiple commitments to extend the Ultracross system, with the possibility of the system installed in 20 or more MLB ballparks before opening day. In addition, the majority of Promats’ MLB-level commitments have resulted in similar backstop netting renovations at the clubs' corresponding spring training facilities. 

Getting Back to the Babe

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the most iconic brand in baseball is the New York Yankees. On Jan. 10, the Yankees organization announced that additional protective netting will be installed at Yankee Stadium for the start of the 2018 regular season. Increased coverage will include partially retractable netting attached to the roofs of both dugouts and stationary netting extending beyond the far ends of the dugouts toward the foul poles.

During the design and engineering process, the Yankees consulted with the architecture firm Populous and Promats Athletics.

The Yankees said the netting attached to the roofs of both dugouts will extend to a height of nine feet above each dugout during games. The bottom portions of these nets will be upwardly retractable by up to three feet, allowing fans the opportunity to fully interact with players during batting practice when the protective batting cage is being employed around the home plate area of the field. Prior to the start of the game, the nets will connect to the dugout roof, where they will remain in place throughout the game.

Beyond the dugout, netting will extend to Section 011 on the first-base side and Section 029 on the third-base side, according to a press release from the organization. The netting in these locations will rise to eight feet above the playing field (approximately 5.5 feet above the wall surrounding the field of play), and will remain in place from the start of batting practice through the end of the game. These sections of netting may be removed for soccer matches or other events held at Yankee Stadium.

Dyneema fiber Ultra Cross 1.2 mm-wide knotless netting – the same as was used for Yankee Stadium backstop netting in 2017 – will be utilized for all netting in the 2018 season. All of the netting will be "field green" in color to minimize its visible impact for fans in attendance and those watching on television.

Installation will begin in February, and will be completed in time for the Yankees' scheduled 2018 home opener on Monday, April 2 versus the Tampa Bay Rays. A similar protective netting system at George M. Steinbrenner Field is being installed and will be operational for the start of Yankees spring training (Tuesday, Feb. 13).

“To be mentioned by name in a press release by the most iconic brand in baseball and by Major League Baseball… We’re thrilled. We’re all thrilled,” said Dyneema’s Smith.

Even better, the representatives from all three companies realize that they have made attending baseball games safer for fans while protecting the fan experience.

Next week, Smith is headed to the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, where seven police officers shot in the line of duty will share their stories of how Point Blank’s Alpha Elite protective vests made with Dyneema Force Multiplier Technology material stopped the bullet and saved their lives.

“Alpha Elite from Point Blank is the same vest worn by NYPD. Fans at Yankee Stadium are protected from batted and thrown baseballs by the same material that provides ballistics protection for the police officers who protect them in their home communities,” he added.

And that’s a home run.

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