AKRON Fan safety at the ballpark has been a hotly debated issue for some time now.
Foul balls, splintered bats and other objects entering the seats at baseball games have prompted discussions about how to better protect those in the stands, but so far, not much has changed.
At Canal Park, that change is about to happen.
The Akron RubberDucks are set to join a small, growing number of teams across the country to expand the coverage of the safety netting between the field and stands. Presently, the netting at Canal park extends from the inside (closest to home plate) corner of the home dugout to the inside corner of the visiting dugout, reaching up several dozen feet. Starting this season, the city of Akron and RubberDucks will extend that netting to the far end of each dugout, reaching to the edge of the infield.
"I really have to tip my hat to the city of Akron. In talking with the city, it’s become a hot topic, upgrading fan safety," RubberDucks general manager Jim Pfander said. "We want to take every opportunity to make Canal Park a great place for fans to come, but also a safe place, which is why we’re pushing through the netting for an expanded area of the park."
Pfander noted that the team views itself as "stewards of the ballpark" and said that after seeing other teams, including the Pawtucket Red Sox (Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox), install expanded netting with successful results, the team is excited to move forward with the project.
Pfander was among those who heard a presentation from Promats Athletics, a company that manufactures ultra-thin netting for stadiums, at baseball’s winter meetings in Orlando. The netting is a good fit, the RubberDucks believe, in part because its green color allows it to blend in with the grass when it comes to fans looking through it and see the game.
One of the complaints from those who oppose expanded netting is that it will obscure more fans’ views of the game. While Pfander admitted that the team raised those issues in its discussions about the netting, the general manager said that the belief is that the new netting won’t significantly alter the fan experience.
Over the two-plus decades the RubberDucks have played at Canal Park, there have been a few occasions of fans being struck by foul balls, including a handful in the past few seasons.
Still, Pfander noted that even if netting were extended beyond the planned expansion at Canal Park, the potential for injury due to foul balls or flying bats would still exist to some extent.
"You never want to see anybody hit with foul balls, but ultimately, this is baseball and inherently there is some danger," Pfander said. "You could extend ball from foul pole to foul poe and someone could still be hit. Even with more netting, we do have seats that are still open air where fans can catch a ball if they sit down past the dugouts."
As part of expanding the netting, the existing netting behind home plate will also be replaced with the same Promats netting to ensure a consistent look from one end of the netting to the other.
Work on the netting is scheduled for the last week of March. That should allow time for the weather to improve and also make sure the new netting is in place by the time the players who will be on the RubberDucks roster break camp at spring training and make the long drive north to Akron.
The first team workout is slated for April 2, which seems a long way off with snow and cold still blanketing the region, but as baseball fans know, once spring training begins, the pace quickens significantly and new netting and a new-look roster will soon be in place at Canal Park for the coming season.
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