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Why Did I Survive My Brush With Death on a Baseball Field?

By       Message Roger Shuler     Permalink
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Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer

This has been a tragic spring, with thousands of American lives lost,  or savagely disrupted, by tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest.

It's hard to compare stories of tragedy, to determine which is more sad or disturbing. But one that touched me deeply came last week when a youth baseball player died after being hit in the chest with a thrown ball. It happened in Winslow, Arizona, the town made famous by Jackson Browne and the Eagles in the timeless hit "Take It Easy" ("I was standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see . . . ).

Hayden Walton, 13, tried to bunt a pitch, but it hit him in the chest. Walton took a few steps toward first base before collapsing. He died the next morning.

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Baseball is the quintessential American game. Some of my fondest memories as a kid are of playing baseball, both the informal kind in someone's backyard or an open field and the organized kind, which I played in various leagues from age 8 up into high school. The thought of a child dying while playing baseball  is so implausible that it scrambles the mind.

The Hayden Walton story hits particularly close to home because I probably came a few microseconds away from meeting a similar fate when I was 9 years old.

Walton died from commotio cordis,  which is a disruption of the heart rhythm from a blow to the chest during a critical time in the heart beat. The name of the condition comes from the Latin for "agitation of the heart." What happens during commotio cordis? Here is how article describes it:

Commotio cordis typically involves young, predominantly male, athletes in whom a sudden, blunt, nonpenetrating and innocuous-appearing trauma to the anterior chest results in immediate cardiac arrest and sudden death from ventricular fibrillation. The rate of resuscitation is low but improving. Although commotio cordis usually involves impact from a baseball, it has also been reported during hockey, softball, lacrosse, karate, and other sports activities in which a relatively hard and compact projectile or bodily contact caused impact to the person's precordium. Nearly 250 cases have been reported to the National Commotio Cordis Registry. . . . Despite a recent increase in registry cases because of increased awareness, the entity is still probably underreported.

Deaths from commotio cordis are relatively rare, but I seem to read about one or two cases every summer. And each time, the stories touch me deeply.

I was struck in the chest by a pitch when I was 9 years old, while playing in a Kiwanis league baseball game in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. It was 1966, and at the time, I don't think many people had heard of commotio cordis;  I sure hadn't. It wasn't until about 30 years later that I read about a young baseball player dying from a blow to the chest and first heard the term commotio cordis.  My reaction? "How in the world did I manage to survive? Why am I still here?"

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I played organized sports, in one form or another, well into my 30s, and that pitch to the chest was far and away my scariest moment in competition. I remember pretty much all of the details. My team was Dixon's Hornets, and we were playing our season opener at Harry Carr Park (which I understand was plowed under for some sort of development several years ago). The opposing team was Bob's Bluestreaks, and they had probably the best pitcher in our league, a kid named Richie Voyles. I don't recall ever getting a hit off Richie Voyles. But he hit me with a pitch I will never forget.

The distance from the pitching rubber to home plate for 9 year olds was not much, well short of the 60 feet, 6 inches that you usually see for high schools up to the major leagues. I'm guessing it was 48 feet or so, and when a kid like Richie Voyles could really bring it, there wasn't much time to react.

I don't remember the count, but I think it was the first pitch of my first at-bat of the season. The pitch was heading inside from the moment it left Richie's hand, and for some reason, I turned into it. If I had turned away from it, it would have hit me in the back. It would have hurt, but I would have taken my base and been little worse for wear.

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I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and work in higher education. I became interested in justice-related issues after experiencing gross judicial corruption in Alabama state courts. This corruption has a strong political component. The corrupt judges are (more...)

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