April 22, 2010
By Janie McCauley
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Matt Hiserman points his finger to the spot on his cap where the baseball struck him in the head during a frightening play in mid-February. It's just above his right ear and an inch or so behind the brim.
He's lucky to be alive, let alone back on the mound pitching - and pitching well - for the University of San Francisco. Doctors weren't sure he would return to school at all.
Hiserman's extraordinary comeback has defied the expectations of even the medical experts, not to mention his coaches, parents and teammates.
"I didn't really have any doubt in my mind,'' Hiserman said of returning this season for the Dons. "I didn't think this soon, but I felt I would be able to get back out there at some point.''
On April 10, Hiserman made a triumphant return to the mound against Gonzaga, tossing four scoreless innings of relief with five strikeouts and escaping a bases-loaded jam. He would have kept pitching had his coach let him in the tied game, which was ultimately called for darkness in the 13th inning. Hiserman's stats from that outing aren't official because the game was suspended.
That hardly matters. They count to him, his mom and dad, and everybody who knows what he endured and supported him through the recovery.
During a Feb. 13 intrasquad scrimmage, Hiserman was hit by a sharp line drive off the bat of teammate Pete Lavin. Hiserman spent four days in intensive care as doctors monitored the bleeding of his brain to see if he needed surgery.
Hiserman's skull fracture extended through the facial nerves and inner ear bones without seriously affecting them. He suffered a blown out right eardrum and slight decrease in hearing.
The fracture didn't rupture Hiserman's carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain. It also broke in a straight line and didn't damage the nerves on the right side of his face. That could have caused paralysis.
Hiserman was diagnosed with a severe concussion.
"He is so lucky. If that ruptures the carotid artery, he may not be with us,'' said USF team orthopedist Dr. Ken Akizuki, also the San Francisco Giants' team doctor.
During his recovery, his progress was monitored by a team of physicians and athletic trainers. He was repeatedly examined using a computerized test called "ImPACT'' that helps determine the severity of concussions. The test was developed by the Sports Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It puts the brain to work and gets data about the points of trauma - measuring attention, memory, processing speed and reaction time.
"I saw my progression day to day,'' Hiserman said. "It was visible. When I woke up, it was like, 'OK, I'm less dizzy today.' I could feel that.''
At practice, black protective flaps peak out on either side of Hiserman's hat that cover his temples, a precaution to lessen the blow if he's hit by another line drive. He is no longer a starter for USF, yet coach Nino Giarratano is getting plenty of production from the junior right-hander in long relief.
In last Sunday's 5-0 win over West Coast Conference rival Saint Mary's, Hiserman pitched 5 1-3 scoreless innings, struck out six and didn't walk a batter. He has a win and a save with five Ks in 5 2-3 innings of work - make that 9 2-3 innings with 12 strikeouts if counting his appearance against Gonzaga.
Hiserman suffered flashbacks as he prepared to throw his first pitch in that delayed season debut. He briefly stepped off the mound and went down into a crouch before standing up and getting to work. He said a little prayer. Those close to him fought tears.
Hiserman accepted that he will always fear being hit again, but facing that fear has helped his emotional healing.
"Every time I go out there, that thought will be there,'' he said.
This wasn't even the first time he took a comebacker to the head.
In the spring of 2005, as a junior in high school, Hiserman was hit in the right cheek and broke his sinus bones.
"For me it was kind of figuring out why I was put in that situation,'' he said. "That was a really tough experience, but a lot of good things came out of it.''
Hiserman considers himself lucky that the latest ball hit him where it did.
In nearby Marin County, 16-year-old high school pitcher Gunnar Sandberg was hit by a line drive during a March 11 scrimmage and suffered a brain injury. That sparked the Marin County Athletic League to ban metal bats and require its 10 teams to use wooden bats.
Doctors removed a part of Sandberg's skull to relieve brain swelling. He's slowly recovering in a San Francisco rehabilitation facility after initially being in a medically induced coma.
"It actually became more real to me when I heard about Gunnar,'' Hiserman said. "From what I've gathered, the only difference was luck that my brain didn't swell up on me like his did.''
As Hiserman recalled his ordeal during a recent workout, teammates took their batting practice swings nearby and provided the constant pinging sound of balls off metal bats.
"I'm really hoping there isn't a third one,'' said Hiserman's father, Mike, an assistant sports editor at the Los Angeles Times. "It was scary.''
Doctors talked to Hiserman about skipping the semester, but he wouldn't hear of it. He's set to graduate in May with a degree in finance, then begin a two-year master's program in sports management and finish out his final year of baseball eligibility next season. He would like to become a college athletic director.
Coach Giarratano resigned himself to not having Hiserman back this season and maybe not ever. It was all about taking baby steps - joining the team for its season opener at Pacific six days after the injury, returning to class, walking to class, gradually working back to playing catch and facing hitters.
Hiserman took midterms a week later than other students, while they were on spring break. At first, something that typically would have taken 30 minutes took three hours.
"He's a pretty strong kid. The first day I saw him in the hospital with his parents, I saw some doubt in his eyes, but that's when he was hurting,'' Giarratano said. "Ever since the second or third day I started going over to the hospital, I saw him go, 'I'm going to do this again.'''
Even Dr. Akizuki tried to dissuade Giarratano from letting Hiserman return quite so soon. He figured a structured throwing program - with batting practice pitching and simulated games - might be the best way to ease Hiserman back into his regular workload. Giarratano knew it wouldn't work, because Hiserman was ready.
So, the coach started preparing Hiserman's parents for his comeback. They made a plan to get him the protective headgear. The company that makes it, Evoshield, is working to add a forehead piece for Hiserman.
"I think it was more difficult for my parents,'' Hiserman said. "This is a game I've been playing for 18 years now. I was aware of the dangers.''
His dad asked what was motivating him this season.
"He wants to see how good he can be,'' the senior Hiserman said. "As simple as it sounds, that's what it is about.''
Interestingly, just two weeks before Hiserman was hurt, Giarratano had been reflecting on his 12 seasons as Dons coach and how he'd never endured a "catastrophic'' injury.
"We've been blessed with a great lesson that there's a bigger thing out there than just winning baseball games,'' Giarratano said. "It's been good for all of us. Any time there's a recovery like this, I just thank everyone and everything that gave us a chance to see it come full circle.''
Lavin - the team's best hitter who beaned Hiserman - has finally returned to his aggressive self at the plate. But it took a while.
"Matt has a lot to do with that, coming back,'' Lavin said. "It was just an awesome feeling to see him on the mound from the dugout. It sent chills down my body and I even got choked up.''
And he's not the only one.