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Fields of Broken Dreams

Freak Death of Baseball Player is Fifth Fatality This School Year and Many Are Pondering the Sense of It All

May 08, 1997|ERIC SHEPARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 11 years as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, Bob Yarnall said he never faced anything as difficult as he did last Saturday afternoon.

Yarnall, the baseball coach at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, watched helplessly as paramedics tried to revive his star player, Kriston Palomo, on the field at Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance.

Palomo, a sophomore playing first base, had his throat crushed by the bill of a Bishop Montgomery player's batting helmet when the two collided during a routine pop fly.

The accident deprived Palomo's brain of oxygen and he could not be revived. The next day, he was taken off life-support systems.

His final words, heard by coaches and teammates, were chilling: "I can't breathe."

Yarnall, who was always there to offer instruction and advice, could only watch and wonder what he could have done differently.

"I went through a lot of things as a police officer, but this hurts the worst," Yarnall said.

Palomo's death was the third on a Los Angeles-area high school playing field in the last two weeks and the fifth this school year, an unprecedented number of local tragedies that have gained national attention.

"It's hard to fathom what's been happening," said Ray Plutko, principal at Temple City High and a former commissioner of the Southern Section. "You can't panic, but you also can't ignore what's happened."

In September, two football players died within nine days.

Running back Eric Hoggatt of Reseda took numerous hits in a 41-0 loss to Chatsworth and later complained of dizziness and numbness in his arms and legs. His mother found him dead in his bed the next morning.

The next week, quarterback Adrian Taufaasau of Coronado was knocked unconscious in a game against Costa Mesa. He died the next day.

The deaths prompted cries from parents, who wondered if enough safety precautions were being taken. Those cries have been heard again recently.

On April 23, sophomore Craig Kelford III of Palos Verdes Peninsula died after a flying discus struck him in the head during a warm-up before a track meet against North Torrance.

A week later, junior pole vaulter Heath Taylor of Newhall Hart died of head injuries after he landed on the edge of the pole vault mat and slid off, striking the back of his head on asphalt during practice.

"I coach both football and baseball, and you expect a certain amount of physical risk in football," said Ignacio Guerra of Fairfax. "But the baseball death, that's a one-in-a-million thing. It's really crazy. It's hard to make sense of what's going on."

The deaths have been particularly tough on the schools where the students attended. Peninsula track Coach Joe Kelly said a few team members elected not to return to competition after Kelford's death.

"You don't forget something like this," Kelly said. "These are the good kids out there trying to make something of themselves. It's hard for me to explain why one of them has to die."

The St. Bernard baseball team voted to continue the season Monday after a memorial service for Palomo. Tears flowed freely in the emotional meeting.

"The rest of the season will be anything but normal," Yarnall said. "You'll look over to first base and think of Kriston."

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