Benjamin Huxtable got his first plastic baseball bat at 6 months, and by this spring he was showing a knack for the sport in the T-ball games sponsored by a local rec council. On Father's Day, the 4-year-old was just where he wanted to be: at a baseball diamond in Baltimore County, sticking close by as his dad warmed up for an adult amateur baseball league game.
That's when a ball flew over the father's head and struck the boy in the chest.
"Daddy!" Benjamin yelled, his eyes wide as he ran toward his father. The youngster lost consciousness in his father's arms, and about a half-hour later he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
The state medical examiner's office conducted an autopsy and found the cause of the boy's death to be cardiac arrhythmia due to blunt force trauma to the chest - that is, a blow that throws the heart out of rhythm.
"The heart beats so chaotically that it doesn't pump any blood," said Dr. Richard Lange, chief of clinical cardiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The Baltimore County Over 30 Baseball League has suspended play, and officials are looking at new rules to keep children out of harm's way. The incident is also being investigated by a national amateur baseball association.
Yesterday, Jonathan Huxtable remembered how the older of his two boys loved baseball and those T-ball games.
"He'd wake up the morning of a game and put his uniform on first thing," Huxtable, a former college baseball player and high school coach, said yesterday in the family's Glen Arm home. "It was everything I could have dreamed of."
Huxtable, 35, is the head of a new Friends school in Harford County. He has pitched and played catcher and third base for the Brewers of Lutherville in the over-30 league for two years.
The league is competitive, with some former college and former minor league players, said league secretary Mike McGee. The rosters even include one former Oriole, Ken Dixon.
But McGee described the league as a "very family oriented organization," where kids would show up for the weekend games at Orchard Hill Park in Lutherville. "The little boys that come out love to chase foul balls, get bats, help keep score," he said. "They're fascinated by it."
Benjamin showed an early aptitude for the sport, those who knew him recalled yesterday. He was one of the youngest on his Carroll Manor Recreation Council T-ball team, but he had a real gift for the game, said his coach, Shawn Ellis.
The little boy who wore No. 3 for the Cubs would play any position - and play it well, Ellis said.
"He would run after every single ball," Ellis said. "If it was hit to first base, he would run from third to get it."
The passion for baseball runs in the Huxtable family. Jonathan Huxtable, who had joined his wife's family in working at their Genesee Valley Outdoor Learning Center in Parkton, coached high school baseball for nine years at a Friends school in Delaware. A native of Boston, he and his father are ardent Red Sox fans, and so Benjamin became one, too.
Not yet old enough to stay up to watch the end of the baseball games, the boy would ask his parents to tape them, and then he'd watch them the next day. His parents said that Benjamin liked to keep score of games, even tracking imaginary players' base-path travels when father and son played together in the back yard.
On game days for the Brewers, the two had a routine: Huxtable would warm up with his teammates on the sidelines, while Benjamin stood 30 to 40 feet behind him as his "backup."
Typically, Huxtable said, he'd catch a ball and then toss it behind him to his son. On Sunday though, Benjamin was distracted, his parents said.
"This one throw was so far over my head," Huxtable said yesterday. "He was watching the game on the field."
Huxtable and others called out to Benjamin, but as soon as he turned, the ball struck him in the chest.
"He would have caught it if he had been looking," said Benjamin's mother, Christine Huxtable. As first Huxtable , then a nearby nurse, tried to resuscitate the boy, a bystander called 911. Medics rushed him to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, where hospital staff could not revive him.
His parents said he had been a healthy boy.
Baltimore County police investigated the incident but determined that it was an accident, and no charges will be filed, said spokesman Bill Toohey.
Since the late 1970s, about 180 people have died after being hit in the chest by balls, pucks or fists. Cardiac concussion causes 10 to 20 deaths a year, said Mark Link, a cardiologist at New England Medical Center at Tufts University in Boston. The incidence has been rising, but that may be due to better tracking, said Link, who first unraveled the mechanism of the condition.
Most incidents occur after people are hit by baseballs, he said. But in recent years, lacrosse-related injuries have grown, as the sport has become more popular. Last year Cornell University lacrosse player George Boiardi was killed after being struck in the chest.
The injury happens most commonly in children or teens, probably because they tend to play sports more than adults do. Also, their thinner chest walls make the heart more vulnerable.
A projectile does not need to be traveling particularly quickly, according to Link's research, which shows the injury occurs most often with balls traveling about 40 miles an hour.
Once a cardiac concussion begins, the victim has only a short time to be revived. If applied within one or two minutes, a defibrillator may shock the heart back into a normal rhythm. But for reasons that remain mysterious, this treatment often fails.
Chris Downs, a spokesman for Little League International in Williamsport, Pa., said concerns about youngsters' safety are the reason the program does not allow players younger than 5. He also said Little League does not allow batboys or batgirls, and it has stopped allowing players to come "on deck" on the field when they're up next.
In the 2002 World Series, Dusty Baker, then-manager of the San Francisco Giants, promised to keep a closer eye on his 3 1/2 -year-old batboy son after the boy was nearly run over after wandering near a play at home plate.
The National Adult Baseball Association in Lakewood, Colo., is investigating the Huxtable youth's death, said Brad Coldiron, chairman of the association's board. He declined to comment further, except to say that the association has long had rules for players "as well as any children or spectators."
Since the incident, Robert J. Barrett, director of recreation and parks for Baltimore County, said he has told staff and supervisors to remind people to be alert to the potential dangers at athletic fields. "You just always have to be aware that these things happen so fast and it's impossible to react," he said.
Already, McGee, the Baltimore County league's secretary, said that the commission would be considering new safety rules.
The league has shown its support to the Huxtable family by encouraging players to attend a service for Benjamin on Saturday, McGee said. Also, the league will be providing players with patches with Benjamin's No. 3 on them.
Yesterday, the Huxtables' other son, 18-month-old Nathaniel, was wearing a Red Sox jersey and swinging an imaginary bat at an imaginary ball, just like his older brother used to.
Jonathan Huxtable said that he and his wife, hoping that their son's spirit will live on through his love of baseball, are setting up a fund for Ben's Ballfield - a youth-size diamond for the grounds of the Harford Friends School.
Sun staff writers David Kohn and Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.
A rare set of unlucky circumstances occurs to cause cardiac concussion.
A blow must strike the person directly over the heart.
The impact must come from a fist or a hard object such as a baseball or lacrosse ball rather than a larger, softer item that dissipates force.
A key factor is timing. Impact must occur during a precise moment in the cardiac rhythm: after the heart contracts, as it is relaxing and waiting for the next electrical signal to contract again. The phase lasts for one or two hundredths of a second, only a fraction of a single heart rhythm, which typically takes about a second.
That means those who suffer a direct hit over the heart with a hard ball have only a 1 percent or 2 percent risk.
"If you do get whacked outside of that vulnerable time period, it is not that dangerous," said Mark Link, a cardiologist at New England Medical Center at Tufts University in Boston.