The last thing Gunnar Sandberg remembered, he was delivering a pitch to Zac Byers during his Marin Catholic (Calif.) School baseball scrimmage against De La Salle (Calif.) High. In the blink of an eye, he was down on the ground, unconscious after being hit with a powerful line drive off the bat of De La Salle batter Zac Byers. He awoke from a coma a month later, having undergone multiple surgeries to relieve swelling and bleeding on his brain. A month after that, Sandberg was meeting with players for the nearby Giants and A's, and insisting that he would return to baseball.
On Tuesday, Sandberg made good on that pledge, playing as an infielder for Marin Catholic in the team's season-opening baseball game against Castro Valley (Calif.) High. While on the field, Sandberg wore a new helmet produced by Easton sports, and six days later the senior was helping officially unveil the company's first "pitching helmet," pictured above (though the person wearing the helmet above is a model, not Sandberg). The company's offering is an attempt to provide more safety for prep baseball pitchers facing dangerous shots off aluminum bats, which often create a spring effect that makes "hot shots" much more dangerous.
While the Easton helmets are still in the prototype phase -- except for the one currently being worn in the field by Sandberg, of course -- they still provide a fascinating look at the potential future of baseball headwear. The goal of the helmets is to provide a level of protection that will prevent skull fractures, the injury that befell Sandberg, while not weighing down baseball hats, which can still be worn underneath the helmets.
The company's goal is a delicate balance between strength and finesse, though the efforts made by Easton pale in comparison to the dedication of the athlete himself, a path which has included multiple head surgeries, significant memory loss at school and advocacy for more safety measures in prep baseball.
That was the Sandberg family's role in Monday's announcement, though their appearance at a company's press conference was hardly needed to demonstrate the Sandbergs' faith in their son's ability to play the sport he loves, with the addition of a moderate protective helmet.
While Sandberg has no plans to return to pitching, he dedicated much of his summer and fall to returning to baseball. According to the Marin Independent Journal, the senior even played on a winter league team to prove to Marin Catholic coach Tim Grayson that he was ready to return to major high school action.
What he showed was enough to earn a spot on the team and, subsequently, a spot in the Marin Catholic infield.
"If you asked me six months after it happened, I wouldn't have thought he would be back on the field," Grayson told the Independent Journal. "So I am pleased and surprised at the same time. ... If you didn't know he was the kid who got hit, you would have no idea what happened."
"Gunnar's excited about playing." the player's father, Bjorn Sandberg, told the Independent Journal. "We're excited that he's back out there. We still worry a lot, but he played winter ball so the first day of practice isn't so big."
As it turns out, Sandberg's first game was incident free, too, with the converted infielder thrown out at first on a bunt attempt in his first at-bat, which you can see in the video above.
"I don't really look back on it too much," Sandberg said. "The only reason I would look back onto it is to prove to myself how far I have come and how much I am going to keep progressing. But besides that, what's done is done and I'm here today. So I can't complain."
Perhaps with the help of new helmets and renewed efforts to use safer metal bats (California and Virginia have taken measures to outlaw bats like the aluminum one used in Sandberg's injury), future prep pitchers won't face the risk that Sandberg did every time they throw a pitch.