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Sharper focus put on sports safety measures


One boy tripped crossing first base and crumpled to the ground. Another collided with an instructor during a play at the plate.

It was bound to happen, as the youngest participants at Elrod Hendricks Baseball Camp took the field last week at McDonogh School in Owings Mills. This, after all, is a game that involves all manner of hurtling - of youngsters from base to base and the ball at the center of the action.

That's why none of the 7- and 8-year-old players stepped up to bat without a protective vest and a helmet equipped with a face mask.

Safety has always been a key consideration for the coaches and instructors in youth baseball leagues and summer camps. But the death last weekend of a 4-year-old Baltimore County boy before the start of an adult amateur game served as a reminder to guard against tragedy in a sport where the ball can wound or even kill.

It also prompted the Baltimore County Over 30 Baseball League, where play was suspended after Benjamin Huxtable's death, to put new safety rules in place before play resumes this week, the league commissioner said Friday.

When it comes to the youngest baseball players, protecting against baseball-related injuries is part awareness, part prevention - and part luck, said Joe Bosley, director of the Hendricks camp.

"You try to make sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing, and taught the right way," he said. "With these attention spans, it's [repeating it] over and over."

Emergency rooms in the United States treated nearly 1.7 million injuries related to team sports in 2002, according to a July 2004 report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The report lists 28 team sports deaths in 2000, five of them in baseball, eight in softball.

Three of the baseball deaths were attributed to an impact injury to the chest - the type of blow that killed Benjamin. The Glen Arm boy was struck by an errant ball as his father warmed up with teammates for their game on Father's Day.

Medical experts have said that an injury of that type requires an unusual set of circumstances - a blow that strikes a specific spot during a specific time in the cycle of the heartbeat - to be fatal.

Some injuries and deaths have led to safety-related changes in certain sports. For instance, after a 13-year-old girl died from injuries suffered when a puck flew into the stands and struck her in the forehead during a 2002 National Hockey League game, the league began to require protective netting in its arenas.

As for baseball, efforts to protect players and fans have been evolving for a century. Major league ballplayer Roger Bresnahan is credited with being the first, in 1905, to experiment with the use of a batting helmet after he was beaned by a pitch, according to Freddy Berowski, a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Signs warn spectators at Camden Yards to beware of batted balls. The caution is also given at the start of the game - both by the announcer and on the JumboTron.

"Sometimes, there are things in life that are very difficult to completely protect against, so you just do your best," said Roger B. Hayden, a former Baltimore County executive who is now director of ballpark operations for the Orioles.

For youth programs in particular, that often means extra rules or modified safety equipment. Little League International in Williamsport, Pa., for one, only allows children age 5 and older to play baseball, bars the practice of having batboys or batgirls, and keeps the on-deck batters off the field.

At the Ripken Baseball complex in Aberdeen, home to various youth camps and tournaments, officials were already planning to add a defibrillator - used to shock a heart back to its normal rhythm - at their baseball academy even before Benjamin's death.

Ripken Baseball is also planning to work with MedStar Health on a project to research and track all injuries that occur at the complex, said Rob Weinhold, general manager of the organization's camps and clinics.

"Obviously, if there's an increase in knowledge, then there's an opportunity to go ahead to make sports safer," he said.

After Benjamin's death, Baltimore County Recreation and Parks Director Robert J. Barrett said he immediately communicated with his staff about the importance of being alert to safety issues. By the end of last week, he said, he was interested in looking into whether defibrillators would be good additions for county facilities.

Mike Hamburg, the Over 30 League commissioner, said he has crafted new safety rules for pregame warm-ups that he planned to tell managers and others about this weekend.

Benjamin - who, family members said, loved baseball and was already showing a natural aptitude for the sport - was hit while standing near his father and other players on the sidelines of the field as they warmed up for a game at Orchard Hill Park in Lutherville.

But from now on, those types of warm-ups will be done far from spectators, and no children will be allowed nearby, Hamburg said. Under the new rules, pitchers will warm up in front of the batting cage, he said.

"The No. 1 important thing is it's going to prevent this from ever again happening in the future," said Hamburg, who also serves as an umpire for the league. "It's going to bring awareness."

League play will resume Tuesday, he said.

At the Hendricks camp, Benjamin's death was a reminder of why the focus on safety is so important, Bosley said.

The camp already has additional precautions - vests, caged helmets, softer balls - in place to protect its young players, who tend to be less focused on the game, he said. And during a session on Thursday afternoon, Bosley and instructor Mike Broache used every little blip in the game - from a fielder blocking a base to another child complaining about the batting vest to another swinging a bat at the bench where his teammates sat - to remind them about safety.

"Here's what I want you to know. That could have been a person," Bosley admonished the youth who hit the bench. "I'm not mad at you. I just don't want it to happen again."

Despite all they already do, Bosley, a Baltimore County social studies teacher, said he still talked to his counselors and instructors, most who don't have children, about Benjamin's death, in part to illustrate why he's always stressing safety.

"We call it a teachable moment," he said. "Maybe I was trying to express a little bit of that we are taking care of other people's kids, and we need to get into that kind of mindset."

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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