Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Friends mourn teen

Justin Saccone was struck in chest by pitch

By Brenna R. Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COLD SPRING - Justin Saccone never passed up an opportunity to play baseball. "He loved baseball," said friend Chris Steele. "He would have played for anybody, anytime." So when a friend's team needed a player Sunday, Saccone jumped at the chance.

But during the game at Pendery Park, Saccone was struck in the chest by a pitch while trying to bunt. The 15-year-old died shortly after he arrived at the hospital.

An autopsy showed that Saccone died from commotio cordis, a rare occurrence in which low-impact trauma to the chest disrupts the heart's electrical system, said Campbell County Coroner Mark Schweitzer. There have been only 46 such cases in the country linked to baseball or softball, he said.

Monday afternoon, hundreds of classmates and friends gathered to remember Saccone at a prayer service at First Baptist Church of Cold Spring.

"I guess it was just his time to go, and he died doing what he loved to do and that was play baseball," Steele said during the service.

Many wrote messages to Saccone, known to his friends as "Shorty" or "Squirt," on posters in the foyer.

"Hope you're having fun up there. We are going to reserve #3 for you on the baseball team," read one message. "Play hard, Squirt," another said.

At Campbell County High School, where Saccone was a sophomore and his brother is a senior, grief counselors spent Monday talking with students, said Principal Anthony Strong.

After school, red-eyed students filled the church, where pictures of Saccone flashed on two large screens. Friends told stories and cried on each other's shoulders.

The small blond boy always had a smile and a way to give one to his friends, they said. His last weekend was filled with the simple joys of being a teenager: a high school football game Friday and a homecoming dance Saturday.

"I wish I would have known that Saturday night was the last time I was going to see him," Daniel Stein said. "I wish I could see him one more time to say goodbye."

Saccone, who had a 3.5 GPA, was also in drama and Future Farmers of America.

But baseball was his love. Saccone had tried out for the school's freshman team last year and didn't make it. He was playing in the fall Campbell County Knothole league to improve his skills.

On Sunday he wasn't playing with his usual Newport Elks team, but a team that was short a player.

Though his parents, Rocke and Tammy Saccone, did not want to comment Monday, they asked Strong to tell the community that their son loved baseball.

"They in no way want people to stop letting their children play baseball," Strong said.

During the service, Saccone's friend Joey Ball offered a prayer asking that no one feel responsible.

"Let the pitcher who hit him know that it's not his fault," Ball said. "Let the coach who chose him know that it's not his fault."

As of 2001, there were 128 recorded cases of commotio cordis, of those, 46 happened in baseball or softball games and 13 in ice hockey, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The impact is so minor that the heart is not bruised, it's merely shaken and thrown off its rhythm, Schweitzer said.

Immediate defibrillation is the only thing that could have possibly saved Saccone, he said. Studies have shown that chest protectors do not prevent commotio cordis from occurring, the Journal said.

Visitation will be in the Campbell County High School gym 4-8 p.m. Thursday. A funeral Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Church in Cold Spring.


E-mail bkelly@enquirer.com

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