Braves’ Snitker wants expanded netting to protect fans

For years, Braves manager Brian Snitker has avoided looking when line-drive foul balls go screaming into the seats.

“I stopped watching balls go into the stands when I was a third-base coach because I did not want to turn around and see a young kid get hit,” Snitker said. “I did a couple of times, and it makes you sick to your stomach when you see that.”

With that powerful statement, Snitker expressed firm support for expanding the protective netting at baseball stadiums, including SunTrust Park, to better safeguard fans from injuries inflicted by high-velocity baseballs.

“I think everybody in a uniform would like to see that,” Snitker said of expanded netting.

At least 10 of the 30 MLB teams -- the Braves not yet among them -- have announced this summer that they plan to extend the netting to or near the foul poles in their stadiums. Some of those teams have completed the installation.

“I applaud those teams that do that,” Snitker said.

The Braves, who installed protective netting to the far end of both dugouts when SunTrust Park opened, are evaluating whether to extend it farther down the foul lines and how to do so, Braves CEO Derek Schiller told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month. A Braves spokeswoman said this week that Schiller's comments stand.

Among the issues the Braves are evaluating is how extending the netting would work within the design of SunTrust Park, where the seats jut closer to the field near the outfield corners.

"The geometry becomes something that has to be considered and is something that we're looking at," Schiller said last month.

As injuries caused by foul balls draw increased scrutiny around MLB, the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals have said they will extend the nets in their stadiums to or near the outfield foul poles by the start of next season or have already done so.

The Braves haven’t disclosed a timetable for deciding on or implementing changes at SunTrust Park.

The White Sox this summer became the first MLB team to install netting all the way to the foul poles, debuting it at a July 22 game. One day later, the Nationals played their first game with significantly extended nets, which stop just short of the foul poles. The Astros have said the netting at their stadium will be extended far down the foul lines in time for a homestand that opens Monday.

During a series at Miami last weekend, Snitker was impressed by how far the nets now extend along Marlins Park’s left- and right-field lines.

“(It’s) really good there,” he said.

Snitker said he doesn’t believe most fans will find their view of games diminished by expanded netting.

“You look up there, you can’t even see the nets,” he said. “I’ve got to think most people ... don’t even notice it.”

By the start of the 2018 season, all MLB stadiums had extended their nets from behind home plate to the far ends of both dugouts. But injuries from foul balls have continued in areas beyond the dugouts.

In recent years, velocities of batted balls have increased, the stands have gotten closer to the playing field and fans have become increasingly distracted by their phones.

“Reaction time is nil,” Snitker said.

The Braves increased the number of seats behind the protective netting when SunTrust Park opened in 2017. At Turner Field, the nets ran from behind home plate to the start of the dugouts. At SunTrust Park, a 33-foot-high screen extends from behind home plate to the far end of the dugouts, stopping at the camera wells adjacent to the dugouts. The netting runs 145 feet down the third-base line and 149 feet down the first-base line.

The recent flurry of teams extending nets farther down the foul lines followed a much-publicized incident in May at a game between the Astros and the Chicago Cubs in Houston. In seats just beyond Minute Maid Park's protective netting, a 2-year-old girl was struck by a foul ball that traveled 160 feet in 1.2 seconds, according to Statcast, off the bat of the Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. The girl suffered a skull fracture and other injuries, the family's attorney later said.

Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner, in a June letter to fans about his team's decision to expand netting, wrote: "I could not help but become emotional watching the Astros-Cubs game when a ... little girl was hit by a line drive. I can't imagine what her parents must have felt in that moment. And to see the raw emotion and concern from Albert Almora Jr. was heartbreaking."

Almora was visibly shaken and in tears, and he told reporters after the game: “I want to put a net around the whole stadium.”