Perhaps you will recall that on March 11, 2010, in a scrimmage game between Marin Catholic High School (Kentfield, CA) and visiting De La Salle High School (Concord, CA), a 16-year-old pitcher named Gunnar Sandberg was hit in the side of the head by a line drive off the aluminum bat of Zac Byers.
The ball was traveling at 100+ miles per hour when it slammed into Gunnar’s head. He was rushed to the hospital, a portion of his skull was removed to give the brain room to swell (decompressive craniectomy, for the medically minded among you), and he was placed into a medically induced coma to try to keep the swelling at a minimum. He spent months in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility while recovering from this life-threatening injury.
The previous month, University of San Francisco pitcher Matt Hiseman swung on a 3-1 scrimmage fastball sending a screaming comebacker that hit teammate Pete Lavin in the same part of the head as Sandberg. Lavin suffered only a severe concussion and a fracture of the temporal bone, but not the baseball-sized depression of the
skull that Sandberg received.
Both pitchers were luckier than 18-year-old pitcher Brandon Patch, who was killed in Miles City, Montana, in July of 2003, when he was drilled by a batted ball in an American Legion game. His family sued the bat manufacturer Louisville Slugger and was awarded $850,000. These and similar injuries have raised concerns about the safety of pitchers at all levels of baseball from little league through the majors.
A Pitcher’s Helmet Prototype: In March, with Gunnar Sandberg and his parents in attendance, Easton-Bell unveiled a prototype pitcher’s head protection device that fits over a standard baseball hat (ballplayers don’t refer to their headgear as “caps”).
It looks and feels like a bicycle helmet with the top removed, and weighs only 5½ ounces. It combines an outer shell of energy-absorbing plastic (expanded polystyrene) like that found in bike helmets, a wide adjustable elastic strap across the back like that on ski goggles, and an absorbent mesh liner such as that found inside football helmets.
At the announcement event at the company’s Scotts Valley Helmet Technology Center (which insiders call “the Dome”), Gunnar Sandberg slipped the device over his Marin Catholic baseball hat and pronounced it “comfortable,” later adding, “Wouldn’t you rather wear this than be in the
hospital for two months?” Anticipating criticism that it might not look cool, Bjorn Sandberg, Gunnar’s father, said, “Any excuse not to wear it is a weak excuse.” In my humble opinion, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie and is really cool.
Easton-Bell is to be commended for developing this device, which was in part motivated by Sandberg’s injury. “One injury is too many,” said CEO Paul Harrington. The designers in the Dome studied film of more than 5,000 pitchers from delivery through follow-through to determine which parts of the head were most vulnerable to injury. They wanted to create something that was light weight, wouldn’t interfere with the pitcher’s windup and delivery, and wouldn’t be uncomfortably hot under the summer sun, hence the open top.
Also present that day was Stephen Keener, President and CEO of Little League Baseball and Softball, Inc. “This type of product needs to be introduced at the youngest level of youth baseball,” Keener said. “That’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take some time. What we’re talking about is saving kids’ lives. These injuries are rare. When they do happen, they are very traumatic, catastrophic.”
Marie Ishida, the Executive Director of the California Interscholastic Federation was also in attendance, says “I would suspect within a five-year period we’re going to see safety equipment [like this] mandated.”
Easton-Bell wouldn’t give a price range for the new pitcher’s helmet. Ongoing testing needs to be completed before a price can be finalized. It is anticipated that the helmets will become available to the public this fall.
The Aluminum Bat Controversy: Head protection isn’t the only issue troubling parents and those who coach ballplayers, especially young ones. Aluminum bats allow players to hit the ball farther and with greater speed than the wooden bats that professional baseball uses. (The latter have their own issues, such as the splintering of the popular maple bats, but that’s a topic for another article.)
It is said that balls hit with aluminum bats can travel at a speed in excess of 130 mph when they reach the pitcher’s mound, especially in the hands of high school and college players. This increased bat speed, and resulting ball speed, is due to the lightness of the bats, the larger “sweet spot,” and the “trampoline effect” of the aluminum material, all of which place pitchers in greater peril.
California has now mandated the use of deadened aluminum bats for high school and college baseball. They perform much like wooden bats, but are much more durable, eliminating the cost of replacing splintered bats. The Marin County Athletic League, in which Gunnar Sandberg plays, went to wooden bats right after his injury and they have continued to use them this season.
The NCAA has also mandated the use of the less-lively aluminum bats. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) noted a power outage after their players were required to use the deadened bats. Home runs are down by 50%, number of runs scored per game are down 20%, batting averages are lower, the average pitcher’s ERA has dropped from 4.04 to 3.17, and shutouts are way up.
LSU Coach Paul Mainieri said recently, “The bats have made an enormous difference. It’s changed the way you play. There’s more hit and runs, more stealing and more moving runners any way you can. The days of swinging for the fences on every pitch are finished.”
Miraculously, Gunnar Sandberg is back playing baseball for the Marin Catholic baseball team, using the prototype helmet that Easton-Bell designed in large part for him (see photo below).
He’s been restricted to playing first base or DH, but not because of his head injury. He has a torn right labrum in his throwing shoulder, which he sustained while sliding head first into second base in a winter league game in
December. (Sliding head first is also a topic for another article.) This injury will likely require surgery after the
baseball season. His only residual effects of the brain injury are problems with short-term memory and difficulty
concentrating in school, but he is expected to graduate with his class this spring.
Gunnar’s mother, Lisa Sandberg, perhaps summed up her son’s brush with death best. “Gunnar’s skull fracture was exactly in the shape of a baseball. Had it hit him [an inch or so further forward] in the temple, he would have been dead.”
Photo Credits: Tanya Koenker, nbcsports.com, http://www.internationalsport.com, sports.espn.go.com, AP Photo.