A few years ago, I was asked by the ABC television news show 20/20 to be interviewed about issues involving safety in youth sports. They were doing a report on the heartbreaking story of a child who began playing baseball in the first grade. While his parents never expected him to become a star athlete, they knew he loved to play and encouraged his love of baseball, taking him to the park every year for signups in early spring. At the age of 10, he played catcher for the Cardinals, his "little league" team in Florida. He weighed 63 pounds at the time and stood about four and a half feet tall.
His mother enjoyed attending his games with her husband, like most moms and dads, but one day, because of a family commitment she was late for a game. When she arrived at the ballpark she immediately noticed that the players were not out on the field. As she approached the bleachers, she heard rumblings about someone being hurt. Naturally, her first thought was of her son. From the sympathetic look of other parents as she approached, she knew that her son had been the one who was injured.
A few minutes earlier, her son had been standing in the batter's box at home plate. Her son was up to bat against a pitcher with an outstanding fast ball, who, like most 10-year-olds, hadn't developed the coordination to keep his pitches under control. The pitcher let loose with a pitch that was high and inside, heading straight for her son. He tried to get out of the way, but there was no time. The ball struck him in the inside of the chest, just above the heart. Witnesses said he seemed to gasp for air, then collapsed, unconscious.
He was rushed to the hospital by helicopter but was pronounced dead upon arrival.
There are many who see a case such as this as just another freak accident that can and do happen anywhere, from riding a bike to climbing a tree. But I would argue now, as I did then, why would children, as young as even six years old who are just developing things like eye tracking skills and coordination, compete with a ball that is basically the same as the one used in Major League Baseball?
The traditionalist pressed on saying that using a softer ball was not teaching kids the proper way to learn baseball.
To our organization's delight, not long after the incident, sporting goods companies began producing a softer ball that looked like a regular baseball but was much safer. However, the ball was met with opposition from local leagues to some of baseball's national headquarters. The reasoning, it just wasn't a real baseball.
I'll never forget the day an executive at one of the youth baseball organizations visited our office to complain of our position. After feeling I was getting nowhere, I asked him to put his hands behind his back and said to him, "I have both a regular hardball and the new softer ball in my hands. Given the choice, which one would you want me to throw at your face?" Needless to say, I made my point.
I understand the traditions of sports. But I will never, ever forget the look on the mother's face when she told me the above story. I truly believe this young boy should still be alive today.