bmcgair@pawtuckettimes.com

PAWTUCKET – In their final season at McCoy Stadium, the Pawtucket Red Sox are placing even more of a premium on fan safety that team officials say won’t come at the expense of one of the franchise’s time-honored traditions.

In keeping up with a trend in ballparks across the country, the protective netting at McCoy has been extended to include all sections down the first- and third-base lines that are situated underneath the ballpark’s roof. That means all of the field box, reserved, and general admission seats within Sections 1 through 12 have received the royal net treatment. Sections 13-15 will remain uncovered.

The “better to be safe than sorry” approach has also been applied to the field-level luxury suites. The new, state-of-the-art netting was installed during the holiday break with a letter sent out last week to notify season, flex, and mini-plan ticket holders of the upcoming change to their viewing pleasure.

Now, fans with seats in the aforementioned sections and suites won’t have to worry their pretty little heads (or arms or legs) if they look away from the action for even a split second. Ditto for paying customers who are walking up or down the stairs with food or beverages in their hands. They can go about their baseball pleasure minus the threat of screaming line drives sent their way.

“We want to have a venue that’s safe and caters to different viewing experiences,” said PawSox Executive Vice President Dan Rea, who along with President Dr. Charles Steinberg co-signed the update-to-McCoy letter that was mailed out.

It wasn’t the PawSox unilaterally telling their partners at the state level – specifically the R.I. Department of Administration – that something needed to be done to combat what the ballclub noticed was an uptick in incidents in the immediate home plate area. In 2016, the netting was extended to include Sections 5 through 8, though it did not prevent the pregame art of “fishing” for autographs.

“It was a collaborative effort but the state certainly took a leading role,” said Rea.

Not just at McCoy but at ballparks around the country, the heightened awareness of making sure fans don’t feel like they’re sitting ducks could be chalked up to pitchers throwing harder than ever and hitters remaining in full attack mode and swinging for the fences on two-strike counts. Gone are the days of the traditional two-strike approach where it was common to choke up on the bat and protect the plate.

“It was definitely something worth examining and considering,” said Rea, noting that McCoy sees on average between 6-12 incidents per season where foul balls are the culprit. “Just looking at it through baseball and the municipalities that own these venues, they’ve had to think about these things and some thinking has had to evolve.”

With PawSox Vice Chairman Mike Tamburro and Executive Vice President/General Counsel Kim Miner spearheading the efforts from the team’s end, the state agreed that it would be in everyone’s best interest to add an additional level of safety that provides a reasonable amount of protection for fans.

“It was one of understanding of a public venue balancing between safety and fan accessibility and fan comfort,” said Rea.

The expanded feature at McCoy was done over a three-day period in late December and was installed by North Carolina-based Sportsfield Specialties, Inc. and overseen by PawSox employees Mick Tedesco (Superintendent of Stadium Operations), Jeff Caster (Director of Warehouse Operations), and Dave Crowley (Facilities Maintenance Manager). In an email correspondence with Director of Sales Kevin DeVantier, the past three years has seen Sportsfield Specialties install Ultra Cross netting in 24 Major League Baseball ballparks – Fenway Park is on the list – along with an estimated 50 Minor League Baseball ballparks.

“This offseason alone, we are working with many MiLB teams to extend and protect the stands,” wrote DeVantier.

“We had them come in December because it was the only time they were available,” said Rea.

To the autograph seekers who enjoy the thrill of the chase when it comes to lowering a bucket down to either the home or visiting dugout at McCoy, the pursuit of obtaining prized collectables will still go on – albeit with a new twist in compliance with the expanded netting. In designated areas, the net can be lifted like a curtain and be brought down and re-hooked.

The net will not be raised for the popular in-game “Hurl the Pearl” charitable contest where fans take their best shot at throwing a plush ball through the sunroof of a vehicle as it drives around the warning track. Those watching the game from the field-level suites will be made aware to head outside, either to the left-field rock garden or right-field barbecue tent area, should they wish to participate in “Hurl the Pearl.”

“We’ll still have a robust ‘Hurl the Peal,’” said Rea.

For those who believe their McCoy experience will be distorted as they attempt to look through a net, the PawSox recently held a staff meeting in one of the suites that overlooks the playing surface. When Rea asked if the net was a hinderance or obtrusive, no one complained.

“It’s a pretty strong net,” said Rea, “It’s better to be safe and cautious and that’s what we tried to do here.”

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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