North Bay News

Face masks for pitchers? Accident ignites debate

Thursday, March 18, 2010

New steps are being taken tonight to protect high school baseball players after a terrible accident that left a Marin County boy in a coma.

Gunnar Sandberg was hit hard in the head by a line drive that came off an aluminum bat at an estimated speed of a 100 mph. That is far faster than the velocity a wooden bat would produce.

At the Drake High School girls softball game there is an unusual sight on the mound. Pitcher Danielle Albini from the visiting team, San Marin High, wears a face mask. It is an option for most players in the league, but not for Albini. The protective mask is as much a part of Albini's game day as her San Marin High uniform.

"I'm more confident. I'm able to field better because I'm not scared about getting hit," says Albini.

She also does not have a choice. Her team is the only one in its league that requires pitchers to wear the masks. That edict came down from the coach after one of his players was hit in face by a line drive from an aluminum bat.

"We're asking a lot of high school players to be able to react in that amount of time and get their glove up before a ball comes at them," says baseball coach Randy Willis.

Last week, a line drive hit right at Marin Catholic High School pitcher Gunnar Sandberg and struck him in the head. Doctors had to remove part of his skull to relieve the swelling of his brain.

The accident has reignited the debate over aluminum bats and their place on the field.

At Blue Sky Sports in Pinole, the aluminum and composite carbon bats are some of the store's biggest ticket items.

"The ball will travel off these bats much faster," says Blue Sky owner Greg Fehr.

Even with the hefty price tag. They sell, but the store has also started selling more safety masks, mostly to softball players, whose pitchers stand closer to the batter than in baseball.

Industry insiders say this could be the last year high end composite bats are made, but Fehr says that push will have to come from the teams that use them.

"As long as there's a demand for it and there's a way to sell it, they will continue to manufacturer these things," says Fehr.

Some teams are willing to make other adjustments instead.

"The wooden bats break. The problem with school athletics is there is an expense. We need the metal bats," said Willis.

"It's horrible that something like that had to happen, that people are going to start talking about wearing masks more and taking the precaution," said Albini.

After the accident at Marin Catholic, there has been a major push at the school to get the rest of the schools in the league to use wooden bats for the rest of the season. The principal told ABC7 the school has secured donations to make that possible and at this point it is just a matter of whether the other teams agree to make the change.

Comments about injuries from aluminum bats:

Todd Troup of Indiana contacted ABC7 with a similar story to Gandberg's. He says 19-years ago he was on the pitcher's mound, when a player with an aluminum bat hit a line drive straight at his head.

"And it knocked me out. I was only out for about a minute or so and the team helped me up and off the field and called an ambulance right away. Long story short, I had bleeding on the brain. I went into surgery for six hours that night and made it through obviously," said Troup.

ABC7 also received quite a few e-mails relating similar personal tragedies. For example, Jack E. Carlson in Montana, wrote: "We know exactly what they are going through for my nephew was struck by a line drive too. The difference is that Brandon did not live."

Don Colley, from South Charleston, Ohio, wrote: "As a long time youth coach, I never liked metal bats... I realize wood is precious but would rather see them split a bat."

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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