Special helmet to aid pitchers

  • Follow Baseball

SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. --- Gunnar Sandberg pulled Easton-Bell's prototype of a protective pitcher's helmet over his high school baseball cap and immediately deemed it comfortable. His father thinks it looks cool, too.

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Julio Valencia conducts an impact test on the prototype helmet, which combines hard plastic with an absorbent mesh liner.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Julio Valencia conducts an impact test on the prototype helmet, which combines hard plastic with an absorbent mesh liner.

The Sandbergs now plan to work on convincing others of the importance of such headgear.

"I think any excuse not to wear it is a weak excuse," said Bjorn Sandberg, Gunnar's dad.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary since Gunnar Sandberg sustained a life-threatening brain injury while pitching during 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 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.

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 the bulky batting helmets worn by hitters.

The company unveiled its prototype Monday with the hope that the helmets will be worn on fields across the country as soon as this fall, from the Little League level to high schools. Sandberg, who has been sporting a foam soccer-style headband to satisfy doctors' orders for getting back on the field, said he will wear the 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 51/2 ounces, combining components of other products: the stretchy strap of ski goggles, an absorbent mesh liner seen inside a football helmet and the hard, energy-absorbent plastic similar to that used for bike helmets.

Though Easton-Bell CEO Paul Harrington can't yet provide a price for the helmet, he insists revenue from his project was never the priority or motivation.

"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 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.

College baseball and California high schools are using new, safer metal bats this season.

Though 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, 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.

Though 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," said his mother, Lisa. "Had it hit him in the temple, he would have been dead."


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