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How a Line Drive Forever Changed and Nearly Ended My Life

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How a Line Drive Forever Changed and Nearly Ended My Life
Gunnar Sandberg

Close calls seemed like nothing to me. Growing up playing baseball, I saw ball after ball whizz past the pitcher and into the field. The game always carried on, and everyone moved back to their positions for the next pitch—no big deal. One day, the close calls that always seemed like nothing suddenly became a very big deal.

March 11, 2010, was the day that changed my life forever. My high school, Marin Catholic, was getting ready to play against powerhouse De La Salle High School of Concord, California. As the game was winding down, my coach turned toward me and told me to warm up. I was going in to pitch the next inning and was beyond thrilled for my varsity pitching debut.

I was confident, but I was also nervous as hell. I came in against the heart of the team's order, scheduled to face the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 batters. I walked the first man and was down in the count against its power hitter. We all know no one swings on a 3-0 count. I finally threw one into the strike zone, outside corner as always.

Courtesy of Gunnar Sandberg

A loud "ping" noise rang out as he made solid contact, and that’s when it happened.

All I could do was turn my head. I fell to the dirt on the mound as shock overcame my body. I was hit just above my temple by a screaming line drive—one that I later found out was traveling 130 miles per hour.

In that moment, it didn’t even hurt. I figured I could just "man up," stand up and walk to the dugout. Unfortunately, it was more serious than I thought. Before I could figure out what was happening, the ambulance pulled into the parking lot, two EMTs placed me on a backboard, and into the back of the ambulance I went. The last thing I can remember was the ambulance speeding out of the school parking lot.

Baseball season meant everything to me. I lived for the smell of the fresh grass, the sun beating down on me and the sweat running down my eye-black-covered cheeks. I played as hard as possible just to get my chance to play, but it turned out this hard work on the field was for nothing.

I had always seen those line drives fly right past the pitcher in Little League, travel ball and Major League Baseball, but I never thought something would happen to me. I had been hit in the foot once, but that was it. Baseball could never be this dangerous! There was no tackling, no punching, nothing—it was a gentleman’s game.

I had always treated the game this way, and as most baseball players and teenage boys, I felt invincible. Invincibility, however, is unfortunately nothing but a false hope borne out of confidence.

Three weeks after that frightening afternoon, I finally awoke on Easter weekend of 2011. My parents called it an "Easter miracle."

Some people say that they have memories—visions while in a coma—but that wasn’t the case for me. In fact, my first memory after waking up was passing In-N-Out Burger, and the fact that I couldn’t have any was another small jab.

The ambulance continued on, and I was extremely confused when we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. Where was I going? Frustration ran through my veins, as I couldn’t talk because of the numerous tubes and apparatus shoved down my throat before I was transported. Why was I in an ambulance and why couldn’t I speak? I had no idea what happened; all I knew was that I was angry—and couldn’t communicate.

Courtesy of the Sandberg family

After about a week of simply sleeping and regaining my consciousness, I started to work, and I worked hard, getting my life back in shape. Going into the baseball season, I was 6’0”, 160 pounds. By the time I reached the rehabilitation hospital, however, I was down to 115 pounds with not an ounce of muscle on my body. I now looked more like Skeletor than a former athlete.

The most shocking thing, besides my weight, was that I had a skateboard helmet on. I was lying in a bed—why in God’s name would I be wearing a helmet? Later that week, I found out why. When I took my first look in the mirror in what felt like ages, my brain was protruding out of my skull.

I learned then just how dire my situation had been.

My family sat around my bed, saying that they had to talk to me. They informed me that when I was in the coma, the doctors had told them that I wasn’t going to make it.

It may have been a miracle that I survived, but I wasn’t about to wait around for another miracle to get me back on my feet. This was going to take hard work, and my family and I were ready—not only my family, but also the nurses, my friends, the Marin County community, the baseball community and even people across the country supported me like you couldn’t believe.

After hearing that the doctors doubted my survival, I worked as hard as I could to prove them wrong. I learned again how to talk, walk, read...all the activities you often take for granted. I struggled, as I knew what to do, but would continuously miss one vital step.

I would place my toothbrush under the running water, but would forget toothpaste. I would throw a sweatshirt on, but no shirt underneath.

My therapists—occupational, physical and psychological—would push me every day to get better, to "add value to every rep" as my coaches would say. There was always one thing that pushed me: getting back on the field.

I kept asking my parents when I could play again. My mom instead tried to convince me that golf and tennis were great spring sports and that I should heavily consider them instead of baseball.

Courtesy of the Sandberg family

Sorry, mom. Baseball was my one true love and my passion. No one thought I would ever see the field again. Everyone doubted me, but this just fueled my fire. I was going to do it. I was determined, and no one could stop me.

School came around in the fall, which was a definite struggle because of memory and some cognitive issues, but I knew that I could push through. I had my eyes set on returning to the field.

When the day to return to the field finally came, I was met with more heartbreak. A torn labrum had relegated me to designated hitter-only duties. My day back in the field would have to wait another year. This crushed me, but I made a promise to myself to keep fighting, and this latest roadblock would not change that.

I didn’t play the field, so I didn’t really get the opportunity to wear any head protection in the games, but I did in practice.

Easton-Bell Sports approached me in my senior year and said it was close to having a product for me and would release it to the public shortly thereafter. I appreciated everything it was doing, and its headpiece was very practical. It did the job, in terms of safety, but it didn’t pass a couple of tests, including the mirror test.

Marcio Jose Sanchez

The headgear was a great idea, and I wish it would have worked out, but the reality is it would not have. I liked it, as it was the first thing I had seen that would have protected the head, but it frankly didn’t look good. It would be a tough sell for anyone.

It featured a hard shell in the front and came down to the temples, but in the back, there was a simple elastic band in order to fit most head sizes. The best thing, as far as aesthetics go, was that I could wear my baseball hat under it.

I felt unsure about my safety when I wore it. What if someone threw a ball at me when I wasn’t looking? Would it actually protect me? I doubted it. I also tried wearing a base coach’s helmet, but that was rather impractical.

Would it protect my head in the field? Yes. Any time I bent down or had to move my head too quickly, however, it would fall to the ground. I could only imagine what could happen if it fell off in a vital moment.

Years later, I came into contact with a company called Unequal Technologies, which makes protection for all sports, including baseball. It revealed the "Halo" not long ago, which features a sheet of lightweight Kevlar.

Courtesy of Gunnar Sandberg

This was the answer for me. I’ll trust any material that can save a man’s life from a bullet. It’s what I trust most to this day to protect my safety out on the diamond. Boston Red Sox catcher David Ross and Oakland Athletics catcher John Jaso also believe in Unequal, as they are currently wearing it underneath their helmets—a step in the right direction.

Even though I trust it completely, I do feel like something that protects the temples would be the optimal product, so there is still work to be done. Having said that, I love what this company is doing and how driven it is to prevent injuries such as mine.

Although it makes a standard hat heavier, once I wore it to a few practices, it felt like nothing was there. I would do anything to save the next player from going through what I went through, so I implore all players to consider a product like this.

All pitchers who’ve been hit in the head by a line drive know that it’s the scariest moment in their life. If only someone said "you aren’t pitching unless you wear this," then these horrific accidents might be prevented or mitigated.

Brandon McCarthy, who has spoken publicly (per Paul White of USA Today) about refusing to wear the new IsoBlox, is sending the wrong message to all pitchers—professional and Little League.

With all due respect to McCarthy, he is letting down kids who need to see proof that protection isn’t for wusses. You would think that after going through what he did—what we did—he would think about making a change in his career that could potentially affect thousands of others.

Uncredited
The IsoBlox model MLB is pursuing

Clayton Kershaw, on the other hand, has spoken up in support, saying he is definitely willing to try the headgear and it seems like a good idea, stating on MLB Network (via IsoBlox.com), "I’m definitely not opposed to it. I think it’d take a lot of getting used to. I think it’s a great thing and a step in the right direction, for sure."

Even if MLB was being more proactive, the real change needs to happen early, in youth baseball. Once young players are used to wearing protective gear, they will become more comfortable using it as they grow older.

I know that the ego of professional pitchers gets in the way of wearing headgear, but creating a new culture from youth ranks through high school, where this is all they know, is the missing link to better protecting players. If I were to step on the mound again—chances are I won’t—I would wear anything to protect me.

Although this horrible accident changed my life, I wouldn’t trade it for anything—even with all of the hardships, dark thoughts and fears I’ve had to overcome. The lessons I learned make me the man I am today.

Courtesy of Gunnar Sandberg

I am now back playing baseball, playing left field and the hot corner, wearing Unequal’s Halo.

The aftereffects, however, linger. I still have memory issues and am now epileptic, but I am fortunate to be here at all. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that I’ve had four major seizures that have all put me a few steps back from where I was before. Every time this has happened, I’ve looked back and have been left frustrated.

What would life be like if I didn’t have these seizures? What would life be like if this accident never happened? As much as I’d like to admit that my life has picked up where it left off before I was hit, I’m not the same.

The worse news is that Major League Baseball is stagnant with its take on head protection.

Seeing Brandon McCarthy, Joe Martinez, Doug Fister, J.A. Happ, Alex Cobb and now Aroldis Chapman get struck with batted balls makes me shake my head. Enough is enough. I can’t understand how these pitchers will get on the mound again without thinking about the consequences. They’re one piece of equipment away from being protected.

That life-changing day in March 2010 is constantly on my mind. Whenever I see a pitcher get hit, I cringe. My injury flashes back in my mind, and I have to walk away. Putting pitchers out on the mound without protection is a serious threat; when is Bud Selig going to realize that this is a burning issue that cannot be ignored?

America’s pastime is changing, and baseball can’t hide behind its archaic traditions if pitchers continue to be hit and seriously injured—putting their lives on the line with every pitch. That was me, four years ago, lying in a coma in a hospital bed while my family was told I was going to die.

Fortunately, I survived and am here to tell my story. Fortunately, and incredibly, no major leaguer has died to this point.

But is that what it’s going to take to finally force change, Mr. Commissioner? Does baseball want to wait for tragedy or prevent it before it happens?

There’s a cry for help by pitchers like me, and we want to know what you are you going to do about it. The answer is out there; now let’s put it into action.

 

Gunnar Sandberg was critically injured in 2010 by a comebacker as a prep pitcher for Marin Catholic High School in Kentfield, California.

Read more of his amazing story here and here, and contact him on Twitter to discuss his efforts to increase player protection @GunnarWSandberg.

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