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Baseball From a Different Perspective : Blind Father of Kennedy Ballplayer Sees the Game Through His Mind's Eye

June 08, 1989|STEVE ELLING | Times Staff Writer

Roy Cizek missed bits and pieces of his son's pitching performance in the City Section championship game at Dodger Stadium last Thursday. Sure, he enjoyed the ambiance--the sound of vendors hawking their wares, the catcalls of fans, the smell of peanuts and hot dogs, the electricity of the game--but overall, he was left somewhat underwhelmed.

"Dodger Stadium was a letdown for me," Cizek said.

Disappointing?

After Cizek's son, Mitch, pitched a complete-game six-hitter? After his son's team, Kennedy High, won the game, 4-3, over Palisades to win the 4-A Division title? After Mitch was named the game's most valuable player for his effort, which included rebounding from what was believed to be a season-ending laceration on his pitching arm?

A letdown?

"The catcher was too far away from me to understand what was happening to Mitch's ball," Roy said. "It was one of the first times he'd pitched that I couldn't really see what was going on."

See , you see, is the operative verb here. Roy Cizek's sentences are sprinkled with the word, sometimes intentionally, as though he is trying to assuage the uneasiness of anyone who might intentionally avoid using the word.

In Roy's case, he uses it in its figurative sense, because every game is a night game--Cizek lost his sight in a fire at age 3. Yet, his baseball vision hasn't been clouded much at all.

What is all-consuming for Cizek is missed by even the most devout members of baseball's congregation. He hears the game, he senses the action. The sizzle of a good fastball slicing through the air. The thud of the ball in the catcher's glove. The hesitancy in the plate umpire's voice. The ringing of the bat distinguishes the big boppers from the banjo hitters, the woofers from the tweeters.

"I can hear if the ball is off the handle, the end of the bat, or off the sweet part," Roy says.

Indeed, the game is sweet music to his ears, and his ears can distinguish much, much more than the average fan: Cizek is an acoustical engineer who did graduate work at Massachusettes Institute of Technology after studying music and physics at Indiana for three years in the early 1960s. For several years, he owned his own audio company, then worked for two Los Angeles-area stereo speaker manufacturers. He now works as a consultant and lives in Torrance.

The elder Cizek not only recognizes the snap, crackle and pop of a good fastball, but he can tell you whether it was a fastball at all. His explanations are almost professorial.

"You can't always go by the pop of the ball, because if it hits right in the cup (of the glove), it makes a lot of noise," he says, gesturing with his hands. "When the ball hits the glove at a different velocity, there's a different harmonic structure to it, almost a crack. I can hear the stitches, I can tell if he has good rotation on the ball."

When his son was pitching in high school, the elder Cizek typically could be found sitting near the Kennedy dugout, as close to the action as possible.

"He gets right up close to the fence and can practically call every pitch," said Dick Whitney, the Kennedy athletic director. "He knows what Mitch is going to throw."

His baseball savvy, however, was not necessarily learned in the stands. For years, in fact, before the family relocated to Southern California, Cizek was a youth baseball coach in Yukon, Okla.

"I didn't think Mitch was getting much instruction, so I got with a friend from work and said, 'Why not put together a team this year?' " Roy said. "I was kind of scared. I didn't know what people would think about me."

Not much, as it turned out. Mitch, who was 12 at the time, remembers the reaction of the kids who showed up for the first day of practice.

"The first day, they walked up and said, 'A blind coach? No way,' " said Mitch, who lives with his stepmother in Panorama City. "They turned right around and walked off. Even myself, I didn't know what was going to happen."

Roy's co-coach left the team a few weeks later, leaving Cizek to handle the team. Despite more than a few doubters, he eventually won over the players, parents and fans and became a cause celebre of sorts. Roy was featured on a segment of NBC's "Real People," and was the subject of several newspaper articles. The Cizeks led the team to a city championship and finished second the following year.

"I think the initial back pressure from parents and everybody really made me want to do it even more," Roy said.

To effectively coach--in light of the dark, so to speak--Cizek had to make several personal modifications. He used a pitching machine to shoot fly balls to his outfielders, who were asked to turn their back to home plate, then pick the ball up in flight to help develop quickness. To hit infield grounders, Cizek held the ball in his left hand, a bat in his right, and threw the ball into the swinging bat. Infielders were not informed who Cizek would be hitting the ball to, which helped keep players alert, he says.

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