Something big is happening in Major League Baseball. Even if you're not a fan, it's worth noting.

Tonight, the Chicago White Sox will host the Miami Marlins, and it's set to be the first game at Guaranteed Rate Filed with safety netting extending all the way from home plate to the foul poles.

Other stadiums, like Nationals Park in Washington and the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Park, also have new netting reportedly extending almost as far, deep into the outfield.

These are milestones worth celebrating, which teams reached after a series of violent and viral incidents in which fans were badly hurt -- or even killed. They deserve credit for moving quickly once they made the decision.

(The Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers have also promised that longer, bigger nets are coming soon.)

They're not just making things safer for fans. They're also teaching a major league lesson in corporate leadership and customer service.

Truly gruesome injuries

Here's the context. A few years ago, researchers at Indiana University concluded that a staggering number of fans are hurt by foul balls at MLB games: as many as 1,750 per year.

Since there are only 2,430 regular season games per season, this study would suggest that during any given game, there's a 72 percent chance that a fan will be injured by a foul ball (often traveling more than 100 mph). 

Among the most visible recent incidents, according to the blog  Five Thirty-Eight:

  • 2017:    An infant (an infant!) was rushed to the hospital after a foul ball broke several bones in her face at Yankee stadium
  • 2017:    A fan was blinded in his left eye at Wrigley Field
  • 2018:    A fan, Linda Goldbloom, 79, was killed -- yes, killed! -- after being hit in the head by a foul ball during a game at Dodger Stadium
  • 2018:     A man sitting in the front row at Guaranteed Rate Field [home of the White Sox] was hit in the face by a 107-mph line drive
  • 2019:     Perhaps the most viral recent incident, a two-year-old girl was struck in the head by a foul ball and suffered a fractured skull at Houston's Minute Mid Park.

The accident involving the 2-year-old girl, coupled with Glodbloom's death, are the two incidents that seem to be spurring action. (If the 72 percent statistic seems high to you -- note that it was months after Goodbloom's death -- she succumbed to her injuries four days later -- that anyone even realized what had happened.)

The NHL rule

It's worth noting how the National Hockey League dealt with this issue. In 2002, a fan was killed by a flying puck at an NHL game. By the following season, the league mandated netting in every arena.

The MLB has taken steps toward more netting each year, for example mandating that every team in the league extend netting to the start of the outfield. But the players' union has reportedly been asking for nets to the foul poles since at least 2007.

Their advocacy makes sense, since it's the players who have to deal with the guilt of hurting an unsuspecting fan -- even when it's obviously 100 percent unintentional.

For example, Albert Almora of the Chicago Cubs, who hit the 2-year-old girl at Minute Maid Park earlier this year, was distraught afterward.

As for Goldbloom, who was killed, there's some controversy over which player's foul ball hit her. That's probably for the best. Nobody needs to live with that.

Fan experience

So what's stopped the expanded nets until now? The argument against them has been that lower level seats are among the most expensive, and fans don't want nets to interfere with their view. 

I understand that argument. In fact, until this year, I agreed with it. 

But now that I've focused on the issue, I absolutely prefer to be behind the net -- especially now that I'm taking my young daughter to games. We went to a minor league game this past weekend in fact; when we selected our seats the location of the nets was my number-1 concern. 

I don't think I'm atypical, at least in terms of parents brining kids to games (aka, the fans of the future). And that's why this isn't just a baseball story. It's a story about true leadership and effective customer service.

Sometimes customer service means reacting to customers immediately and giving them what they say they want.

Other times, it means being insightful enough to anticipate how customer priorities are changing, before they become apparent to everyone else -- and giving customers what they're going to want in the near future, instead.

True business leaders are the ones who can tell the difference -- and act, before anybody else.

Published on: Jul 22, 2019
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