SCOTTS VALLEY (CBS / AP) — Gunnar Sandberg pulled Easton-Bell’s prototype of a protective pitcher helmet over his high school baseball cap and immediately deemed it comfortable. His father thinks it looks cool, too.
KCBS’ Mike Colgan Reports:
The Sandbergs now plan to work on convincing others of the importance of such headgear for safety.
“I think any excuse not to wear it is a weak excuse,” said Bjorn Sandberg, Gunnar’s dad.
This Friday marks the one-year anniversary since Gunnar Sandberg sustained a life-threatening brain injury while pitching in a scrimmage for Marin Catholic High School. He got hit by a line drive traveling at 130 mph.
Doctors removed a part of Sandberg’s skull to relieve brain swelling. He slowly recovered in a San Francisco rehabilitation facility after initially being placed in a medically induced coma.
The 17-year-old Sandberg is back on the field for his senior season, playing designated hitter and first base. That’s because he has a torn right labrum in his throwing shoulder that likely will require surgery. It happened sliding headfirst into second base during a December winter league game.
Easton-Bell Sports spent most of the past year developing a lightweight, padded product to keep pitchers’ heads safe—and it’s a far cry from those bulky batting helmets worn by hitters.
The sporting equipment company unveiled its prototype Monday with the hope these helmets will be worn on fields across the country beginning as soon as this fall, from the Little League level to high schools. Sandberg, who has been sporting a foam soccer-style headband for protection to satisfy doctors’ orders for getting back on the field, said he will wear Easton-Bell’s helmet even when playing first base.
“Finally, we got something,” Sandberg said before the formal announcement at Easton-Bell’s “The Dome” center, where the company houses its helmet research and technology division. “I’m really going to push around our local area for everyone to wear this. Wouldn’t you rather wear this than be in the hospital for two months?”
The helmet weighs about 5 ½ ounces, combining components of other products: the stretchy strap of ski goggles, an absorbent mesh liner like those inside a football helmet and the hard, energy-absorbent plastic similar to that used for bike helmets.
While Easton-Bell CEO Paul Harrington can’t yet provide a price for the pitcher helmet, he insists that revenue from his project was never the priority or motivation—but rather filling a need.
“One injury’s too many,” said Harrington, who believes Major League Baseball could be interested in the product down the road. “For Gunnar to be here today, standing here trying this on, is truly an inspirational story.”
Stephen D. Keener, the president and CEO of Little League Baseball and Softball who has a son pitching in college, said he will support Easton-Bell’s product and push for its widespread use. One day, Keener hopes, pitchers will pull on their protective helmets the way players grab for their bats or gloves.
“This type of product needs to be introduced at the youngest levels 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.”
Sandberg’s frightening accident sparked the Marin County Athletic League to ban metal bats and require its 10 teams to use wooden bats. The league is using wood bats again this season.
In addition, college baseball and California high schools are using new, safer metal bats this season.
While the bats play closer to their wooden counterparts minus the weight and mass, they also are designed to decrease the exit speeds of the ball off the bat. The average speed had been considered 93 mph, but many hits were coming off at rates of 100-103 mph and making for dangerous situations in which players had little or no time to react or protect themselves.
California high schools already went to these bats, while the rest of the country has another year to use the older, lightweight composite models.
Marie Ishida, the executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation and also in attendance Monday, said her organization recommended some type of protective equipment for defensive players. She expects the pitcher helmet to be readily available in a year or two.
“I would suspect within a five-year period we’re going to see safety equipment mandated,” she said.
University of San Francisco pitcher Matt Hiserman, like Sandberg, survived a life-threatening skull fracture last February when he was hit with a line drive during an intrasquad game. He returned to the mound only a couple of months later.
Both pitchers were lucky. They each were struck above and just behind their right ear. Had the ball hit them an inch or so further forward toward their face, they might not be here today.
While Sandberg still has trouble with his short-term memory and a hard time concentrating at school, he is set to graduate this spring. Then, he plans to attend College of Marin, where he hopes to play baseball.
“Gunnar’s skull fracture was exactly in the shape of a baseball,” his mother, Lisa, said. “Had it hit him in the temple, he would have been dead.”
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