Editor’s Note: Jeff Pearlman is the author of “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL”. He is also the host of the “Two Writers Slinging Yang” podcast. Follow him @jeffpearlman. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Brian Johnson is on the phone, and he is pissed.
I have called to ask the former Major League Baseball catcher about the game he loves. Specifically, about safety and the game he loves.
Less than 24 hours earlier, a Chicago Cubs outfielder named Albert Almora hit a line drive against the Astros that struck a young girl in the head. She was sitting in the field-level seats along the third-base line at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, minding her business, when the ball slammed into her.
A loud, pained groan rose from the nearby spectators and Almora, a 25-year-old Floridian in his fourth major league season, knelt to the ground, his face a road map of anguish. He kept looking up toward Section 111, where the accident happened, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. It was absolutely gut-wrenching stuff, reminiscent of the hundreds of other times throughout history when fans were injured by a fast-moving object.
Generally, past accidents have been dismissed as, well, past accidents. The lines are familiar and a bit numbing: All things come with a risk. Hey, it is a sporting event. Safety is our first priority. The fan has a responsibility to pay attention.
Inevitably, we’ll hear some of the same utterances now. Where were the parents? The dangers are well-known. Safety is …
Johnson loathes it.
“We act like there’s nothing we can do,” he told me, “and there are so many things we can do. Baseball is the auto industry saying cars would be safer without seat belts. It’s archaic thinking.”
For the past decade, Johnson has worked as an advance scout for the San Francisco Giants, meaning he attends dozens upon dozens of games, usually situated behind home plate — where there is protective netting to safeguard spectators from a screeching foul ball or 95-mph wildly-thrown heater.
He is amazed that, in this era of larger-than-ever men hurling faster-than-ever pitches in front of closer-than-ever spectators, the majors have refused to follow the lead of professional baseball in Japan. There, some 6,000 miles away, signs are posted that warn—via graphic images—of the dangers of a free-flying ball. Netting extends from foul pole to foul pole, making it physically impossible for someone to get hit.
Inside the Tokyo Dome, the Yomiuri Giants offer access to “excite seats” without netting, but fans are outfitted with mandatory helmets and gloves.
The majors, on the other hand, address fan safety at turtle-like speeds.
When, two years ago, a 2-year-old girl was struck in the head by a foul ball at Yankee Stadium, all teams were required to extend protective netting to the far end of dugouts. The child suffered multiple facial fractures and bleeding on the brain, and league officials responded with a non-bold move made by non-bold men fearful of an already in-decline sport losing even more of its mojo.
At the same time the NFL sells bone-crushing hits and the NBA peddles down-your-throat dunks, was baseball going to go … softer?
“Honestly, I love the game and I played the game — I wouldn’t let my family sit over the dugouts without netting,” Shawn Green told me. He is the former big-league slugger who now works as an announcer for the Dodgers. “You just see too many accidents happen. It’s not worth that risk.”
Back in 2005, while he was a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Green’s bat slipped from his hands and soared behind the first base dugout, where it collided with a ticket holder named Karen Wellmeyer. She was rushed to Miami’s Memorial Hospital with a ruptured spleen, and, upon learning of the incident, Green was crestfallen. That, however, wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the time a foul ball off his bat came inches from hitting a baby.
“The guy holding her flinched at the last second,” Green recalled. “It was a missile. I don’t like to think what would have happened had it hit her.”
“Truly, I can’t even think about it.”