Palm Harbor softball lover dies after being hit during game

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Greg Fusco lived on the softball fields.

He traveled around the state for weekend tournaments. He practiced with teammates after his day job as a maintenance worker for the city of Dunedin. He met his wife through the sport, proposing to her on a field with the ring inside a halved yellow softball.

"He was the player everybody wanted on his team because he was a great guy," said Mike Ogliaruso, a lieutenant for the Clearwater Police Department who used to play with Fusco.

So it came as a shock, and a uniquely painful tragedy, when Fusco, 37, died Sunday about two weeks after taking a line drive to the head. According to a St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office report, the ball struck Fusco of Palm Harbor in the left temple while he was playing a tournament Dec. 2 near Jacksonville. A friend said he was pitching at the time.

He was unconscious at first but came to by the time the ambulance arrived, the report says, noting he appeared dazed. Fusco was flown to UF Health Jacksonville for treatment with what the report said were non-life-threatening injuries.

A GoFundMe campaign started by a friend to raise money for his wife, Taylor, said he had suffered a skull fracture and was rushed into surgery. His recovery looked promising at first.

"I was worried, but I was confident," said Taylor Lang, a friend who thought Fusco’s well-known stubbornness would help him pull through.

But his condition later turned for the worst. Doctors pronounced him dead early Sunday. The cause of death is unclear; an autopsy report wasn’t complete this week.

Adding to the tragedy was the timing. Fusco had gotten married not even a month before. The couple had just returned from their honeymoon in Hawaii when he was hospitalized, Lang, 24, said. According to the couple’s wedding website, they met on the fields while he was playing ball with her dad.

While they were dating, she picked out a canary diamond ring at a jewelry store but put it back when she saw the price. Fusco returned later and bought it as a surprise. He proposed to her after a tournament in front of friends.

"It was something that everyone was envious of," Lang said of their relationship. "It’s rare."

The outpouring from the Tampa Bay softball community was swift as news spread of his hospitalization, then his death. Friends and businesses organized several fundraisers and charity tournaments, including one today starting at 8 a.m. at the Woodlawn Sports Complex in St. Petersburg.

The incident has also led to at least one organization changing its rules. International Slow Pitch Softball, an organization with about 15,000 players under its umbrella, added the "Greg Fusco Rule," requiring pitchers to wear face masks. If pitchers opt out, they must sign a waiver of liability.

"We’re just trying to be proactive so this doesn’t happen again," said Commissioner Manuel T. Ferrero III, who was already considering instating the rule after a pitcher in Colorado lost his eye this year under similar circumstances.

A recording of the 911 call provides some clues as to what happened in the minutes after the ball hit Fusco.

"He went out cold. He hit the ground out cold," a man told a 911 operator. "It knocked him out."

Softball and baseball generally have a lower rate of injury than, say, football, said Dr. Eric Coris, a family and sports medicine professor at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. But because the ball is hard and travels fast, the rate of catastrophic injury is higher.

"That’s often when the ball is coming right back at you," he said.

The risk is higher if the athlete has had an injury, even a minor one, before. The Sheriff’s Office report mentioned that Fusco had sustained another head injury earlier that day.

Further complications can happen during hospitalization, such as blood clots, infections and pneumonia, Coris said.

Ogliaruso, who has played on a Clearwater team for years and used to pitch in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system, said the game has gotten faster over the years. The equipment has become more powerful, but the field dynamics have stayed the same.

Still, both he and Lang used the same word to describe the situation: surreal. Some people take the sport more seriously than others, but for most, softball is a fun, social activity, Ogliaruso said.

That’s how Fusco treated it. He was the kind of guy who showed up, always smiling, to a game wearing a uniform from another team he’d just played with.

"That’s why this tragic event is hitting everybody kind of oddly," Ogliaruso said, "because it’s … surreal this kid is not going to be around anymore from playing a game he loved."

Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.

       
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