May 26, 2010
Of all the projectiles used in today’s four most popular professional sports, no air-borne apparatus is more deadly more than the baseball. The worst damage a football or basketball will usually ever do is jam a finger or break a nose (sorry, Stuart Scott). A hokey puck is comparable to a baseball in density and velocity, but players wear full-face helmets the entire game and goalie is the single position dedicated to sacrificing himself in the line of fire. Only in baseball is a primary element of the game defending your opponent’s best attempts at using a large club to bludgeon a cork filled piece of leather into oblivion. I’ll leave the exact physics to the Grinnell guys or whatever other link you wanna put up for that), but the simple fact is that the right swing connecting with the right pitch can produce a devastating amount of force, something any player, coach, or fan can attest to. In fact, the book Death at the Ballpark documents over 850 unique ways people have died either playing or watching America’s pastime. There are close calls every game, with line drives and foul balls zipping this way and that. Usually, people get out of the way. Sometimes, they don’t.
On March 11, 2010, Marin Catholic High School pitcher Gunnar Sandberg was struck in the head by a line drive during a scrimmage. The 16 year old was placed in a medically-induced coma and had part of his skull removed during one of many surgeries. But just two months later Gunnar is well on his way to recovery, and with a protective helmet currently covering his recuperating cranium, he has thrown out opening pitches for both the Giants and A’s in the past two weeks. He is also looking forward to returning to his high school team next season. That’s tough, kid.
I have a special appreciation for what it takes to get back on the field following such a traumatic injury. When I was 16, a line drive to the face while umpiring broke my jaw in three places. I was in the field and with a runner on second positioned behind the mound between second and third base. The sun was setting directly behind home plate and casting its usual fulgent glare, leaving everyone in the infield guessing. I probably should have been a couple steps further back because when the ball was hit I did not even see it until it was already on an imminent collision course with my grill. I had just enough time to turn my head and wear those red Rawlings stitches slightly below my left ear. In another spectacular feat of the human body, the only part of the entire incident my brain doesn’t clearly recollect is the immediate moment of impact. I blacked out for a split second, and then was immediately spewing copious amounts of blood from an unidentifiable source inside my mouth. The pain was throbbing but not overwhelming. I made a bleak attempt to walk it off but was quickly ushered from the field, as my gurgling was deemed a distraction to the pitcher and the pool of blood collecting at my feet a risk to fielders charging the grass.
Luckily, all it took was a few hours waiting in the emergency room and a minor surgery at the hands of one of Farmington’s finest, Dr. John McNeil to get me put back together. I have to give special mention to Dr. McNeil, as he has repaired Griff’s, and Dee’s and my faces multiple times as well welcoming us all into his house for many fun-filled nights of high stakes poker. The surgery itself was actually a rather enjoyable procedure, as the concoction of drugs needed to assure I did not feel my mouth being wired shut while still providing me the cognitive capacity to respond to the surgeons’ orders about how to position my head. Basically, I was totally numbed yet somehow left dangling on the brink of consciousness, creating an exquisite effect that I am unfortunately yet to duplicate, despite my best efforts. When some of my friends came to see me that night in the hospital, I believe my exact words were slurred to them as such, “Breakin’ your jawz is the shiiiiiiiit, maaayn. Ya’ll gotsta try it.”
But, as always, this narcotic nirvana quickly faded and by the time I arrived home I was stumbling around in an agonizing stupor, gradually realizing that I in fact could no longer open my mouth no matter how hard I was now willing to try. Luckily, my injuries were purely skeletal and I sustained no brain damage. If I had been struck just above rather than just below my ear, this would not have been the case. My stomach was perpetually growling being restricted to a purely liquid diet for almost six weeks, but I would be kidding myself if I thought that was anywhere near what Gunnar Sandberg has gone through. I was actually back umpiring the next weekend, not wanting to sacrifice the highly-coveted, bonus-pay tournament games I had signed up for prior to having a frozen rope painted across my face. I was definitely nervous and I have since become much more aware of my field positioning; now giving myself as much distance as possible from the plate without sacrificing my ability to make calls. And while I did get a fierce churning of butterflies in my stomach the first time I trotted into position behind the mound, I stepped back out onto that diamond without giving it a second thought. I hope that you do the same, Gunnar.
Anyone who has ever stepped foot in the yard knows the phrase “Heads up!” as a call for immediate cover from a flying ball. And even though we all know how bad it’s going to hurt if that ball one day somehow makes it through our trusted leather shield or nylon netting, we keep coming back. We love the game too much not to. And we’re all cheering for you to come back, too, Mr. Sandberg. Because the baseball, as hard and hurtful as it sometimes can be, is always there to take another glorious swing at. And Gunnar, don’t worry, once you get the helmet off that scar is going to score you more girls than Stevie Consalvi ever dreamed of.