SCOTTS VALLEY — 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.
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? 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."