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Family Of Boy Hit By Baseball Holds Onto Hope

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WAYNE, N.J. — She wraps her arms around her son, gently raising the spindly 14-year-old boy off a couch to his feet. She hugs him and rubs his back, whispering "I love you" over and over.

Steven Domalewski moves his head to kiss his mother, but all he can manage are slurping sounds in front of her lips. His head flops onto her shoulder, spent from the effort.

Less than two years ago, Domalewski was a happy, healthy star pitcher on a youth baseball team coached by his father. He loved martial arts, climbed every tree on the block and zoomed down his street on inline skates. He once shot an arrow into the wall of his basement rec room.

Now Domalewski is severely disabled, left with brain damage after being struck in the chest by a line drive that stopped his heart while he was playing in a youth baseball game.

His family plans to file a lawsuit Monday against the maker of the metal bat that was used in the game, against Little League Baseball and a sporting goods chain that sold the bat. The family contends metal baseball bats are inherently unsafe for youth games because the ball comes off them much faster than from wooden bats.

There has been a string of injuries the past two decades involving metal bats launching balls that have killed or maimed young players across the country. The Domalewskis' lawyer claims bat manufacturers put speed ahead of safety; one even advertised a bat so powerful it is capable of "beaning the third baseman" with a line drive.

Attorney Ernest Fronzuto says Domalewski will needs millions of dollars worth of medical care for the rest of his life.

Other than the word "Yeah," which he repeats over and over, or "Dadada" which he sometimes utters when he sees his father, Steven cannot speak. He also can't walk or stand on his own, and needs help with everything from using the bathroom to eating.

"My son is serving a sentence, and the only thing he did was pitch to an aluminum bat," said his father, Joseph Domalewski.

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Steven Domalewski's life changed forever on June 6, 2006, an overcast evening in which his Tomascovic Chargers were playing the Gensinger Motors team on the Wayne Police Athletic League field.

Domalewski was pitching, on the mound 45 feet from home plate. He wasn't a hard thrower, but he had excellent control. In the fourth inning, the first two batters reached base. He went to a full count on the third batter.

What happened next unfolded in a flash, but has resulted in an agonizing, slow-motion purgatory for Steven and his family.

The batter rocketed a shot off a 31-ounce metal bat. The ball slammed into Steven's chest, just above his heart, knocking him backward. He clutched his chest, then made a motion to reach for the ball on the ground to pick it up and throw to first base.

But he never made it that far. The ball had struck his chest at the precise millisecond between heartbeats, sending him into cardiac arrest, according to his doctors. He crumpled to the ground and stopped breathing.

His father, a school teacher who had been on the sideline, and a third base coach from the other team ran onto the field. Steven already was turning blue.

Someone yelled, "Call 911!" Within 90 seconds, a man trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation who had been playing catch with his 9-year-old daughter jumped the fence and started to work on Steven.

Paramedics, who were a quarter-mile away doing a CPR demonstration, arrived within minutes. They placed an oxygen mask over Steven's face and rushed him to a hospital. But the damage had been done; his brain had been without oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes.

"Pretty much, he died," Joseph Domalewski said, wiping away tears. "It was just so fast. The thud, you could hear. When it hit him, that seemed to echo."

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The lawsuit is to be filed in state Superior Court in Passaic County, naming Hillerich & Bradsby Co., maker of the Louisville Slugger TPX Platinum bat.

The suit also will name Little League Baseball and the Sports Authority, which sold the bat. It claims the defendants knew, or should have known, the bat was dangerous for children to use, according to the family's attorney.

Hillerich & Bradsby said Domalewski's injury, called commotio cordis, happens more often in baseball from thrown balls than batted ones.

"Our 124-year old, fifth-generation family-owned company never wants to see anyone injured playing baseball, the game we love," the company said in a statement. "But injuries do occur in sports. While unfortunate, these are accidents. We sympathize with Steven and his family, but our bat is not to blame for his injury."

Stephen Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball, declined to comment on Domalewski's case, but said in a statement, "Little League will continue its strong commitment to player safety, and we feel our well-documented record of safety in youth baseball speaks for itself."

On its Web site, Little League denied that metal bats are inherently riskier.

"Little League International does not accept the premise that the game will be safer if played exclusively with wood, simply because there are no facts _ none at all _ to support that premise," the organization wrote.

Representatives of The Sports Authority did not return repeated telephone messages.

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The suit touches on a hotly disputed issue that has been roiling youth and scholastic baseball programs for years.

In 2003, Brandon Patch, an 18-year-old pitcher for an American Legion team in Helena, Mont., was hit in the head by a line drive off an aluminum bat and died several hours later. In Pennsylvania, 15-year-old Donald Bennett was struck in the face by a line drive from a metal bat while pitching in a 2001 game, causing him to lose an eye.

New York City and North Dakota have banned metal bats for youth and school sports, and New Jersey is considering a similar ban.

Several states are studying the issue. Pennsylvania rejected a proposed ban, and Massachusetts did likewise last year _ two months after a high school freshman throwing batting practice was hit in the head by a line drive that fractured his skull. He survived and is expected to make a full recovery.

The National Federation of State High School Associations lets its members choose whether to use metal or wood; most colleges use metal bats.

Metal bats are priced at as much as $300 but are considered more cost-effective than wood bats _ which sell for under $100 _ because they are far less likely to break and can last for years.

Domalewski was playing in a Police Athletic League game, but Little League was sued because the group certifies that specific metal bats are approved for _ and safe for _ use in games involving children.

Little League reached an agreement with the major manufacturers of metal bats in the early 1990s to limit the performance of metal bats to that of the best wooden bats. On its Web site, the league said injuries to its pitchers fell from 145 a year before the accord was reached to the current level of about 20 to 30 annually.

The league said that since it started keeping records in the 1960s, eight players were killed by batted balls, six of which were hit by wooden bats. The two metal bat fatalities occurred in 1971 and 1973, before the new standards were adopted.

In 2002, the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission ruled that there was inconclusive data to support a ban on metal bats in youth and high school baseball games. Its own study found that from 1991 to 2001, there were 17 deaths nationwide because of batted balls _ eight from metal, two from wood, and another seven of unknown origin.

Joseph and Nancy Domalewski pray that their son will return to what he was before the injury. But no doctor has told them that is likely.

"I miss my boy, the way he was," his mother said. "You can't take away our hope."

"We describe our days as painful, and somewhat less painful," his father added. "Our hope is that he walks and talks and becomes a functioning member of society and has kids."

The Domalewskis have purposely left unfixed the arrow hole that Steven made in the basement.

"We're saving that for him to spackle when he gets better," his father said.

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