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Lincoln vs. Sioux City, 6.28

Fans along the first base line try to avoid a foul ball during Friday's game between the Lincoln Saltdogs and the Sioux City Explorers at Haymarket Park.

Accidents happen -- even in baseball.

But when it comes to fan safety, the Lincoln Saltdogs are taking a fastball approach.

Everyone wants to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. Who wouldn't?

But a 2016 incident at Haymarket Park led Saltdogs general manager Charlie Meyer and director of stadium operations Dave Aschwege to pose an important question: How can the franchise provide a great fan experience while making sure they're safe from incoming foul balls?

"It's all about the fan experience," Meyer said, "and creating an environment that is safe for families to come out and watch baseball.

"The University (of Nebraska) and us obviously partnered and decided that we need to extend the netting from the home-plate area down the dugouts to make sure we were looking out for the fans and their safety at the ballpark."

When the decision was made to extend the netting farther down the baseline, Aschwege was expecting some early backlash.

"As for the fan experience, I think we are still OK," said Aschwege, who has been part of the Saltdogs' staff since 2007. "We didn't get as much push-back as we thought we might when we extended them. A few people said something right away, but like anything else, you get used to it. 

"I guess if you see enough hot shots go into that net above the dugout ... It just takes one. I'm sure we've saved at least one or multiple folks from bruises or worse that would ruin your experience at the ballpark."

Major League Baseball extended protective netting to at least the end of both dugouts in all 30 major league parks last season.

MLB is continuing to take similar precautions after some recent scares at ballparks in Houston and Colorado, where children were hit by line-shot foul balls. Some MLB teams decided to extend safety netting to the foul poles.

According to a recent ESPN survey, 78% of fans polled prefer there be extended safety netting.

Though netting expansion has already taken place at Haymarket Park, fans are unprotected by netting down the foul lines past the dugouts. According to Meyer, no major incidents have occurred to his knowledge since the expansion, but Aschwege expects future talks of netting expanding past the foul berms.  

At Saltdog games, first responders and police are also on hand during games to help with any medical attention, along with a handful of ushers.

The Saltdogs' concern for fan safety goes far beyond foul balls and flying baseball bats, however.

Extreme heat and severe weather are two of the more common safety issues that the Saltdogs have dealt with.

"It's happened twice now here where we have had events with the (tornado) sirens going off," Aschwege said. "What our plan is is to put (people) in the bathrooms, concession stands, our offices ... anything on the concourse here. That's where we put everybody, and it has happened twice now.

"We try to warn everybody. Obviously, you can see it coming a little bit, but we try and say, 'There is severe weather coming, we are going to be delayed. We suggest you head to your car and head home for cover. If you stay, this is where you are going to go.' The tunnel where the players go down, we can stuff people in there and the clubhouse area.

"We've done it before and it gets interesting when the sirens are going off." 

Fans are also encouraged to bring empty water bottles to games where they can fill them at the water fountains to prevent heat exhaustion on hotter days, like Lincoln has seen of late. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7431 or tgray@journalstar.com.

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