North Bay News

Teen pitcher's serious head injury sparks crusade

Monday, March 15, 2010

One man's son is in a coma after getting hit in the head with a baseball travelling 100 mph. The father of 16-year-old pitcher Gunnar Sandberg blames the equipment young baseball players are allowed to use. In Kentfield, the accident has re-ignited the debate over aluminum bats.

The varsity relief pitcher was in stable condition Monday night, but still in a coma. This is an incident that has many parents, students, and even the varsity coach, rethinking the game of baseball.

During the last inning, Marin Catholic High School pitcher Gunnar Sandberg threw a fastball that pinged off the opponent's bat and struck him just above the ear.

"It was the most horrific thing I've seen on a baseball field in 20 years of coaching," said varsity baseball coach Mike Firenzi.

"I'm on a crusade to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Gunnar's father Bjorn Sandberg. "With the new equipment they use and the lack of safety equipment for pitchers, it's frightening."

At Marin General Hospital, doctors removed part of Gunnar's skull to relieve the swelling of his brain, then put him in a medically-induced coma.

"You know, I'm on a crusade to make sure it doesn't happen again," said Sandberg.

Gunnar's father wants to eliminate aluminum bats from little league, high school, and even college baseball. He says they add too much speed.

The technology behind the aluminum bats has changed immensely. Aluminum bats today are double-walled, with larger sweet spots, and carbon fiber grips that flex causing a catapult-like effect.

"A 31-inch bat, it's 22 ounces. You could swing this thing like a tennis racket. Where if it was wood, it would be 31 inches, 29 ounces and a kid couldn't physically create that bat speed," said Firenzi.

The ball came off the bat at more than 100 mph giving Gunnar only a split second to react.

"The ball was hit so hard, he had no chance to get his glove up and protect it or anything," said Firenzi.

"I'm hoping maybe now this is going to bring awareness and they will put a helmet on the pitchers or maybe a facemask, or something like that, because I honestly hadn't thought about it until now," said parent Susan Conroy.

Gunnar's coach says he would consider putting special protective head gear on pitchers, but so far he has not seen anything available.

The incident is a sobering reminder for parents that state of the art equipment is changing America's pastime.

First and third base coaches in California high schools are required to wear helmets on the field, but the pitchers, who are a lot closer to the batter, are not.

Sandberg's crusade could be a long struggle, but other parents in North Dakota and New York City have already banned non-wooden bats from high school baseball.

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