LOVELAND, Colo. (CBS4) – There are exactly 108 stitches on a baseball.
Christopher Valerio has that beat.
The 12-year-old baseball player from Loveland received 500 stitches on his noggin last month after he dove for a foul ball and ran head-first into a chain link fence.
Chris’s parents, Josh and Afton Valerio, will acknowledge that, yes, their son’s dome now has some resemblance to the stitched covering of a baseball. They are hoping to be joking about it today.
The day it happened was not funny at all.
“It was traumatic,” in fact, according to his father.
Chris was playing right field for the Salty Dawgs, a Littleton-based 12-under youth team, on April 23 during the first game of a tournament in Kansas City. The opposing team’s first batter came up to bat. He made contact on the fourth pitch.
“We had two strikes on him,” Chris said, “and he hit a lazy foul ball.”
As seen on the Salty Dawg’s video of the play, Chris got a late jump on the ball but soon showed why the coach had put him in the outfield this day — his speed.
“Lefty,” as teammates call him, reached across his body for the ball as he neared the fence. But he lost his footing and fell forward.
The ball stuck in the chain link.
“The fence caught it first,” Chris said, “and then it caught my head.”
Chris’s forehead took the brunt of the contact. But he grabbed the ball and threw it back into the field of play.
The ball was covered in blood.
Chris fell back to the ground as a couple of teammates ran to him.
“And then, all of the sudden, you see them turn around,” Josh Valerio said. “They see Christopher and they’re like, ‘Whoa, this isn’t just a hey-buddy-are-you-ok-can-we-help-ya-up.’ The first boy that got to him, it really affected him.”
“It was the worst thing I’ve seen in any sport at any level,” said Salty Dawgs head coach Mike Ryan, the first adult to reach Chris. “Me and my two coaches sprinted out there. I had a towel, thinking, ‘kid’s got a bloody nose, no big deal.’ (Chris) popped his head up to look at me and — this is graphic — it opened up.”
“I yelled, ‘We need help right away! Ambulance!'” he said.
Chris’s father, Josh, wasn’t far behind.
“It was bad,” he said. “My first instinct is, as his dad, knowing how tough he is, is just, ‘get back up. But then he goes back down. And then the panic in everybody’s voices … I had to change, quickly make that mental change. I knew that he was in a bad, bad position.”
The adults went to work. While they praised Chris’s emotional coolness during the incident, they did have to fight his body’s reaction.
“I knew that I was racing against time,” Josh said, “because of the amount of blood that he was losing, the color of his skin, which I was extremely pale. He had a little bit of blue around his lips.”
Josh is trained to “flip that switch,” as he puts it, and go into his professional mode. He is a firefighter.
“It’s like, here’s a 12-year-old boy whose heart should be racing because he just ran full sprint speed after a bomb. And now, it was very, very weak. So I knew I was dealing with one thing, you know, dealing with shock.”
Afton, Chris’s mother, was in the stands. She was fine until the coach began yelling for an ambulance.
“Oh my gosh, what just happened,” she recalled thinking to herself. “Maybe it’s not as bad as what they think.”
But it was.
“It was scary,” she said, her voice cracking. “I didn’t go on the field. I just kind of let Josh do his thing with the coaches.”
Chris was carried to the Salty Dawg’s dugout. His teammates, some in tears, gathered near home plate and watched from a distance as adults treated Chris.
One of those adults was the mother of an opposing player. An OB/GYN nurse named Sarah, as the Valerio family recalls.
“She was instrumental” in keeping Chris alert and breathing normally, Josh said.
She was “peppering” the Salty Dawgs player with questions — what was his favorite music? What was his favorite magazine? His favorite candy bar?
It worked like a charm.
“I remember everything,” Chris said.
As he was carted to the ambulance, Chris gave his teammates a thumbs up.
It became a team gesture the rest of the tournament.
“We won that game,” Coach Ryan said, “then everybody started processing it. We kind of stumbled through the rest of the games that weekend.”
For two hours, a plastic surgeon and his team re-attached the skin that had been torn away from Chris’s skull. Chris was released from the hospital at 2 a.m.
“As bad as it was,” Afton said of the entire event, “it couldn’t have been handled any better.”
His parents were not sure Chris would want to ever play baseball again, but he returned to the ballpark the next day.
“The entire complex went quiet,” Josh said.
Josh and coaches examined the section of fence. To this day, they are not quite sure exactly what caused the injury. The small burs on the surface of the chain link? A piece of wire that ties fence to a post? Perhaps simply the force of the impact? They may never know precisely what.
Sarah the nurse was also there at the ballpark. When Chris walked up to her, she hugged him and pulled a bag from her pocket.
Inside was Chris’s favorite candy bar.
The gesture nearly brought Chris’s coach to tears.
“She did a really, really, really cool thing,” Coach Ryan said. “She was an absolute angel.”
The family would like to thank her.
Meantime, Christopher continues to heal and has appointments to see plastic surgeons in Colorado. Friends of the family have created a GoFundMe page to assist Chris in his recovery.
If Chris gets his way, he’ll return to the team in about four weeks.
The adults admire Chris’s fortitude, but aren’t sure he — or they — will be ready for it.
“I’m sitting back like, ‘Are you sure?'” Josh joked. “He’s just itching to get back. He goes to the practices and says ‘Hey, coach, can I hit some balls?'”
“Everyone cares for each other,” Chris added. “It’s like the big circle, and we’re all brothers.”
The Colorado Rockies sent a care package this week. Charlie Blackmon, Chris’s favorite player and a fellow outfielder, sent a personal letter, a signed baseball and a Rockies ball cap.