In 2003, while working with a Tampa Bay Rays hitter whom I had been coaching since 1998, I had developed an intimate understanding of his swing. Through an examination of game video he sent me, I noticed that he was struggling to judge pitches effectively. My notes indicated that he seemed to see the ball well out of the pitcher’s hand, with perfect timing in his preparation, but it seemed to me he was losing sight of the ball as it approached him.
I began to suspect that this might be a case of central suppression, where one eye is intermittently shut down to avoid altered vision, resulting in momentary monocular vision and a loss of depth perception. I strongly recommended that he consult the team’s vision specialists. However, he informed me that he had recently seen them and was fitted with new contact lenses- that his not being used to them was probably his problem.
Despite the new lenses, his hitting and contact rate continued to decline. The Rays sent him down to the minors, and eventually, he was released at the end of the 2004 season.
In 2005, after a brief stint with the Boston Red Sox organization, he returned to Washington state and approached me, asking if we could resume training as we had in the past, dedicating 3-4 days a week. I reiterated my belief that there might be an underlying vision condition that we hadn’t addressed adequately and that I wouldn’t engage in training unless he underwent a full vision workup with Dr. Nikaitani.
As it turned out, my suspicions were correct. He was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease known as retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited eye disorder characterized by the progressive degeneration of the retina’s photoreceptor cells. This degeneration led to his loss of peripheral vision in the lower portion of his retina, explaining why he could see the ball well out of the pitcher’s hand but struggled to track it as it approached him.
While the diagnosis marked the end of his playing career, it marked the beginning of a prosperous career as a coach. I had mixed emotions upon hearing the news. I felt happiness that he could attribute his struggles to a medical condition rather than a lack of talent or effort. However, I also felt sadness for his prognosis and the inability to assist further.
In the end, I couldn’t help but feel proud of my ability to recognize what no one in the Rays organization, including their vision team, had seen.
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