For a pitcher struck in the head, a comebacker was a life-changer

It's been 25 years since pitcher Adam Schwindt was nearly killed by a line drive that struck him in head

Up until his world went dark, Adam Schwindt remembers everything about the day that changed his life.

The pitch was a changeup, and the line drive made contact with his skull with a dull thud, flush, so that it bounced straight back past home plate.

He knows that he immediately went down and then stood up; that one teammate flagged down a police officer; that another made sure he didn't choke on his tongue and someone else applied a wet towel to the bleeding.

Lying in the dirt, he told a teammate his head hurt "so bad." And then, "Oh, God. I can't feel my legs."

Afterward, witnesses say, his eyes rolled back and he fell unconscious.

This year is the 25th since Schwindt, 45, was struck above the right ear by that line drive during a scrimmage when he was pitching for the University of San Diego. Serious accidents such as his occur about once a year among high school and college pitchers, research of reported incidents has found. Three major league pitchers have sustained serious head injuries the last two seasons. Each case brings renewed calls for extra protection for a while, and then the baseball world moves on.

Few, though, have come as close to death as Schwindt, and few have had their lives change as much as his.

Not long after he was hit, desperate messages filled up his parents' message machine, about 30 in all, his mother estimated: "He's probably not going to make it. Get here as soon as you can."

A priest at Sharp Memorial Hospital told them the same thing. When Schwindt had arrived, doctors, using the Glasgow Coma Scale, graded him a 4 out of 15. Three is the lowest possible score. He was given a 20% chance of survival.

A neurosurgeon performed immediate surgery, removing part of Schwindt's skull and excising damaged brain tissue in his temporal lobe. Then it became a waiting game.

On the 13th day after the procedure, Schwindt's mother received a phone call from the intensive care nurse. She feared the worst.

Something strange had happened as the woman tended to Schwindt.

"Son of a —!" she thought she heard him say, with an added expletive. He was awake.

Today, sitting at the kitchen counter of his spartan apartment in Torrance, Schwindt says he is happy and healthy, though his life was dramatically altered.

Schwindt had wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon and, before he was struck, was studying for medical school. Now he works as a car salesman. It doesn't pay great, but it is enough.

He shows few lingering effects from his injuries and in most respects has made a startling recovery. He has no visible scar, but when he gets tired his gait changes because tendons atrophied during the coma. Recently, when he was giving out his parents' phone number, he had to double-check to make sure he hadn't forgotten. He keeps a whiteboard on his front door to help him remember the day's important events.

Schwindt reads from a document that mentions his depleted cranial reserve. "A bunch of stuff that says you're missing part of your brain," he says with a laugh.

When he awoke from the coma, no one was quite sure how his brain would function. For days, he floated in and out of awareness.

Eventually, he was moved to rehabilitation. On the first day there, he was asked to recite the alphabet. I know my ABCs, he thought. But he got tripped up past "S." He was told to tie his shoes. He couldn't do that either. He had trouble reading and walking.

He ate among patients who moaned or didn't remember why they were in the hospital, and he grew discouraged. The doctors told him he'd be there for months. That was the only time he cried.

On the seventh day, surprising everyone, he was already out.

Soon, Schwindt felt good enough to go back to school. Wanting to push himself, he took invertebrate zoology, which he almost failed — he got a C-minus — and genetics, which he did fail.

Physically, though, he felt strong, and by the fall of 1991 he had begun an effort to rejoin the University of San Diego baseball team. He planned to wear a backward catcher's helmet to protect his head. The school objected, worried that he might get hurt again and it might be liable. Schwindt filed a lawsuit — not for money, but to be allowed to try out for the team.

Despite testimony from Schwindt's doctors that said he was able to play, the court ruled in favor of the university, finding in part that the school couldn't prevent the risk of reinjury.

"Were this a cat," the U.S. District Court noted, "it could be said he had already spent some of his nine lives."

After the suit, Schwindt said, his financial aid dried up. He couldn't afford school any longer, so he dropped out to work at his family's shipping and packaging store, which he ran for more than 20 years until deciding he needed a change. Long before, he had abandoned his dream of becoming a doctor.

Recently, he returned to school to finish his degree in biology. In his apartment, he has posted motivational messages on pieces of paper.

He also keeps the shirt and baseball pants he wore that day, both ripped in half from when the doctors cut them off. They are reminders that pitchers must be better protected.

For the first time, Schwindt is hopeful that baseball might be moving toward better safety. In June, San Diego Padres pitcher Alex Torres became the first major league pitcher to wear protective headgear.

Better technology will come sooner rather than later, Schwindt hopes. Even now, he can't bring himself to watch when a pitcher gets hit.

Early this month, Miami Marlins pitcher Dan Jennings was struck in the head by a line drive and suffered a concussion. Like Schwindt, Jennings collapsed and then got back up. He leaned into his catcher's arms and stared blankly ahead until he started wobbling and was helped to the ground.

Schwindt was watching television when news of the incident flashed across the screen. It promised to show video footage.

Schwindt got up from the couch, grabbed the remote and changed the channel.

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