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Little Leaguer recovering from surgery

Published: Friday, May 18, 2012 at 11:03 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 18, 2012 at 11:03 a.m.

A 12-year-old Petaluma Little League pitcher faces a long summer of recovery after being struck square in the forehead by a line drive in a game last week.

Brendan O’Neill, who plays for EMG in the Petaluma National Little League, had successful surgery at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland Wednesday to repair his forehead fractured by the ball.

“The surgery went better than we had expected,” said his father, Dennis O’Neill. “He will spend a few days in intensive care, and then we are looking forward to taking him home.”

Brendan is expected to recover from his ordeal, but has already suffered one tough psychological blow.

“He can’t ever play contact sports,” explained his father. For the active and sports-minded Brendan, that means no high school football. “He’s not happy about that,” his father said.

Brendan was injured on May 8 while pitching at Carter Field, the Petaluma National Little diamond at Petaluma Junior High. He took a line drive right in the forehead, cracking his skull, bloodying his nose and causing both eyes to swell shut.

“Brendan is a long, lean kid and the kid who hit the ball has the same kind of build,” said his father. “He (Brendan) just had no time to react.

“There is no blame here. No one is at fault. It was a good pitch and a good swing. What are the odds of a 3-inch ball hitting a 5-inch forehead? It was an accident, that’s all.

“All in all, he is doing pretty well,” Dennis O’Neill said. “What he loves best is when his buddies come to visit. That’s when he really perks up.”

Dennis and Brendan’s mother, Leslie, have taken turns holding all-night vigils at Brendan’s beside while the other tries to keep some semblance of normalcy for the other three O’Neill children — Ellie, a sophomore at Petaluma High School; William, an eighth grader at Petaluma Junior High and elementary school age Annie.

All are athletic. Ellie is a jumper for the Petaluma High track team. William competes in several sports for Petaluma Junior High and plays Junior Little League and Annie plays softball for the Steal Breeze.

O’Neill said he has no intention of asking his children to curtail their sports activity. “I can’t stop being a parent,” he said. “I’ll worry, but I love watching them compete. Sports are important. They teach life’s lessons.”

The father has been a firefighter/paramedic for 19 years and volunteers as the sideline medic for the Petaluma High School football teams, so he is used to sports injuries.

But this one was personal.

When I went out there after Brendan got hit, I wasn’t going as a paramedic, I was going as a father,” he explained.

The umpire behind the plate for the game was Jim Gallagher, who is also a paramedic. “I let him take charge,” O’Neill recalled. “He did a great job. Everyone responded very well.”

And, people are still responding.

“Petaluma is fantastic,” said O’Neill. “Our cupboards and refrigerators are full from food people have dropped off and we really appreciate everyone’s prayers and thoughts.

“People have been great. I happened to mention to someone we needed paper towels and when I got home there were three rolls at the front door.”

Petaluma National Little League is scheduled to have a board meeting Thursday and league president Anthony Lackey said the directors will be discussing ways the league can help the family.

Also sure to be discussed are ways to prevent a similar incident from happening in the future. Most agree with Petaluma National Little League Board Member Troy Sanderson that the incident was “just a horrible accident.”

However, Sanderson said the National Little League officials will discuss ways to make the game even safer. “Little League is one of the most safety conscious sports organizations,” he said.

But he added, “Everything is on the table for discussion. This horrible event will make us ask a lot of questions.”

Among those questions are concerns about the safety of metal bats currently used by Little Leaguers. Little Leaguers of all ages are allowed to use metal composite bats as long as they have met Little League safety standards.

However, many in the area have questioned the safety of all metal bats since Marin Catholic High School pitcher Gunnar Sandberg was severely injured when he was struck in the head by a line drive off a metal bat in 2010.

Petaluma Valley Little League President Marc Terrell said he believes the issue of safety will come up when the PVLL board meets also on Thursday.

“I’m a big fan of wooden bats,” he said. “I think they make you a better hitter, but this is not an issue that is going to be solved by switching bats.”

Emphasizing that he was speaking only for himself and not the Petaluma Valley Little League, Terrell said he believes it is time to move the Little League pitching distance back from its current 46 feet to 50 feet. Such a move would make the distance between bases 70 feet instead of the current 60 feet.

Sanderson pointed out that Little League has recently approved a new division that will use the 50-feet by 70-feet dimension.

Rick Duarte, long-time Little League coach and member of the Petaluma Valley Little League Board of Directors, said he couldn’t imagine Little League using only wooden bats.

“The bats we use now have to pass safety tests,” he pointed out. He added that it is rare that pitchers are hit by line drives. “But I’ve seen kids hit by pitched balls more often than I care to remember.”

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)

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