SALT LAKE CITY — Lou Marson’s face fell in an instant.
Standing on the edge of the infield grass at Smith’s Ballpark earlier this month, with the Wasatch Front looming in the background, the Salt Lake Bees manager thought he was going to be asked about the state of his ballclub.
“You want me to talk about the season, right?” he said with a smile.
The current state of the Bees, however, was not the topic of discussion.
No, the question of the day, which caused him to go quickly from a jovial skipper to a much more somber one, was the issue of fan safety.
Over the past few weeks, fan safety at the ballpark has found a renewed place in discussions across baseball.
You’ll notice our guest services, ushers and security virtually every single time a foul ball goes into the stands. Our staff is on it right away, looking to see if everyone is all right and OK. We actually use hand signals to communicate. They’re easier and quicker than radio or phone. – Salt Lake Bees general manager Marc Amicone
It started May 29, during a contest between the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs.
During a routine at-bat in the fourth inning, Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. drilled a foul ball down the left-field line.
The line drive violently struck a 4-year-old girl in the stands — reports had the ball going at least 90 miles per hour when it made contact — and the incident left Almora visibly shaken.
Four days later, it happened again, this time in Indianapolis at a minor league game. It was a young boy struck on that occasion, and the impact of the foul ball was enough to warrant a hospital visit.
The incidents, and those like them, are "truly an unfortunate part of baseball,” according to Marson, a part of the game Bees players are well familiar with.
“I’ve hit people a couple of times,” outfielder and BYU alum Brennon Lund said. “It is bound to happen every once in a while to everyone, but it is a tough situation, especially when it is a little kid.”
Bees infielder Jose Rojas recalled a specific incident of his that happened a season ago.
“Last year, in Double-A (with the Mobile BayBears), I was batting and I hit someone,” he said. “It is not a good feeling.”
Marson couldn’t recall his swing ever injuring a fan, but the former major league catcher has been around enough baseball to know the feeling.
“Coming up in the minor leagues, I remember it happening a few times,” said Marson. “I didn’t hit the ball, but I remember the reaction. When you hit someone with a line drive like that you feel terrible, especially a little girl like that, but even an adult. You feel terrible, but it is out of your control.”
Control has been the topic of conversation, as in what ballclubs can do to better protect their fans.
It is a multi-edged discussion, with responsibility falling on both team and spectator.
For fans, awareness of one’s surroundings is critical.
“People need to be more aware of what is going on,” said Lund. “In our last (road) series, there was a guy that got hit straight in the face. He was clear out there and the ball was in the air for awhile, but he wasn’t looking. It hit him straight in the face and broke his glasses. Situations like that can be prevented.”
“There needs to be awareness of where you are sitting at the ballpark and knowing there is a danger in sitting up so close,” Rojas added. “Going to (Los Angeles) Angels games growing up, they’d warn you before the game, ‘high velocity baseballs will come your way.’”
More than a few Bees fans agree, noting, among other things, that a lack of preparedness on the spectators' parts contribute to an unsafe environment.
"I do think (lack of awareness) is a problem," longtime fan David Storrs said.
"Bring a glove, pay attention to the game and catch the ball," 24-year-old mother of one, Christine Wells, added.
Responsibility falls on the franchise as well, though, and fan safety reigns supreme in Salt Lake.
“Fan safety is extremely important to us and a top priority,” Bees general manager Marc Amicone said.
For that reason the Bees have a protective net that goes from the far end of the home dugout to the far end of the visitors dugout, and stretches 30 feet in the air for good measure, protecting all who sit in the lower bowl in the designated area.
As such, the net at Smith’s Ballpark already exceeds any and all recommendations from Major League Baseball, which are for nets to go 70 feet out from home plate, a distance that would lessen their coverage by roughly 20 feet on each side at Smith’s Ballpark.
“We have extended our nets beyond what the recommendation is, and this is our fourth season now with the nets extended,” Amicone said.
It’s just not worth the risk to not sit behind the net. – Leigh Graham
The netting is a welcome feature for many fans like Leigh Graham, whose family, which includes five children between the ages of 11 and 1, will only sit behind the protective feature.
"It's just not worth the risk to not sit behind the net," she said.
The Bees also have warning signs posted around the park, warning of objects leaving the field, and on the back of every ticket purchased there is a 126-word warning that includes the phrase “The holder voluntarily assumes all risk and danger of personal injury (including death) ... whether occurring prior to, during or after the event, including, but not limited to the danger of being thrown, batted, kicked, shot, struck, etc., by objects such as balls, bats or other equipment.”
“It is hard,” said Amicone. “We encourage people to really watch for foul balls.”
Bees employees are also trained to be quick responders, in the event that all the warnings and precautions fail.
“You’ll notice our guest services, ushers and security virtually every single time a foul ball goes into the stands,” said Amicone. “Our staff is on it right away, looking to see if everyone is all right and OK. We actually use hand signals to communicate. They’re easier and quicker than radio or phone. We have a full complement of EMS here at the ballpark, too. When someone does get hurt, we make sure they are extremely well taken care of.”
All of it, the net, warnings, training and emergency personnel, have made an impact.
“We don’t have hard statistical data, but there is no question," said Amicone.
The netting has had the downside of limiting fan and player interaction, which in many cases is the lifeblood of minor league baseball, but fan safety remains priority No. 1 for the Bees.
“Player-fan interaction is really a big deal, especially in the minor leagues,” Amicone said. “Fans want to be right there and players want to toss the ball to them. That is a consideration, but safety is always going to trump everything else.”
That might mean even more netting in the future.
Marson, who only leaves tickets for friends and family behind the net, hopes it will eventually extend to the bullpens in right and left field.
“I don't know how much it’ll cost, but I think it will eventually happen down the line,” he said. “You can still get smoked past the dugout if you aren’t paying attention.”
And while the idea of more netting may be upsetting to some, it is likely the way of the future.
“We have probably extended the nets more now than people 20 years ago would have thought we would, so I can see more extension happening,” Amicone said. “It is something that every team and every market looks at. I wouldn’t be surprised if we extend it at some point.”