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Tim Williams Is Battling Back From Eye Injury : College baseball: Loyola outfielder, a victim of a drive-by shooting, is again dreaming of a major league career.

May 17, 1991|GARY KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The window exploded, showering Tim Williams with flying glass that embedded itself in his hair, neck and eyes.

A brick? A rock? Those were the questions that raced through Williams' mind last September when, after a quiet evening with friends at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, the ride home to Playa del Rey ended violently in a drive-by shooting.

Williams, a senior outfielder for the Lions' baseball team, was riding in the back seat of a car driven by teammate Darren Sugiyama. Todd Gates, another teammate, was sitting in the front passenger seat.

Sugiyama was cut around the neck and Gates was not hurt. Williams, however, suffered an eye injury that required surgery and a long rehabilitation.

More than eight months later, police have no leads.

Meanwhile, Williams has recovered from a slow start and is leading Loyola with a season-ending surge. Over the past 30 games, he is batting .356 and believes he has put to rest any questions about his vision and ability.

Today at Loyola, Williams leads the Lions (36-21 overall, 23-10 in the West Coast Conference) against seventh-ranked Pepperdine (40-13-1, 24-8) in the first game of a season-ending three-game series. For the fourth consecutive year, the series will determine the conference champion and recipient of an automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs.

"My sight has been fine from the time I started working out in January," Williams said. "Once I found out I could still see, I knew there was no question that I would come back as good as I ever was."

Williams batted .518 and was selected 1987 Southern Section 1-A player of the year his senior season at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey. He started and played well his first two seasons at Loyola, and last season batted .331 with 14 home runs and 63 runs batted in.

Even so, the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Williams was passed over in baseball's 1990 amateur draft.

"That was probably the worst thing I ever had to deal with," Williams said. "At that time, that was like a shot in my face."

The irony of his own words is not lost on Williams, who was determined to prove the scouts wrong.

That attempt, however, was sidetracked by the events of Sept. 9.

The fall semester had just begun and Williams, 21, was living in an off-campus apartment for the first time. He joined Sugiyama and Gates as they made the rounds of the dorms and talked and joked with friends until about 11 p.m.

"I was kind of tired," Williams recalled. "I was just going to call it an early evening."

As the trio headed west on Manchester Boulevard, another vehicle, its high beams glaring, pulled up closely behind and followed for half a mile. Williams suggested that Sugiyama move left into another lane to let the other car pass.

"I don't know if it was the Lord, a heavenly saint or what, but something told me to move over in the back seat," Williams said. "I started sliding over to the driver's side and a few seconds later, the other car came up on our right and someone shot through the window where my head had been."

Gates rushed to a phone and called for paramedics. When they arrived, Williams was taken by ambulance to Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey.

"I kept asking the nurses if I might lose my eye," Williams said. "I kept asking and kept asking. Finally, one lady had to tell me it could happen.

"I was thinking, 'All the years I've worked and everything I've done to make myself a better ballplayer and it comes down to this?' "

During five hours of microscopic surgery that began at 2 a.m., ophthalmologist Stephen August removed tiny shards of glass from both of Williams' eyes. He also repaired a corneal laceration and removed the lens from the right eye.

Williams woke up from anesthesia not knowing where he was. The patches over his eyes scared him. He reached for his eyes but his hands were strapped down. He started yelling so loudly that a security guard was summoned.

"I spent the whole day not knowing if I could see," he told Alan Drooz of The Times.

The original patches were removed that evening and Williams was released from the hospital the next day.

He wore patches on his right eye during the day and another protective device at night that prevented further injury in case he turned while sleeping.

And he kept his baseball dream alive.

"I was grabbing a bat and looking at myself in the mirror with my left eye," said Williams, who bats and throws left-handed. "I was making sure my stride was long enough and that I wasn't dipping on my swing."

Williams was fitted with a corrective contact lens six weeks after he was released from the hospital that, August says, restored his vision to 20-20. He began practicing with the Lions a few weeks before their season opener Jan. 26.

Without the benefit of fall and winter workouts, Williams started the season five for 28 and batted .195 during the first half.

"All he has to do is go and take his at-bats," Loyola Coach Chris Smith said at midseason. "It's just a matter of time."

Smith was right. Williams has fueled Loyola's drive to a strong finish that could result in the Lions' fourth consecutive playoff appearance. He has had two or more hits in eight of the past 15 games and raised his average to .278.

"A lot of people said, 'He'll never be the same,' " Loyola first baseman Joe Ciccarella said. "But if you look now, he's on fire. The first half was like the fall for him. Now he's into his season."

Williams hopes his comeback and fast finish have convinced scouts that he can play professionally.

Last Saturday, in ceremonies attended by his family and friends, Williams graduated with a degree in sociology.

"There's a lot of good that has come out of this," he said. "It's made me stronger and helped me realize that there is more out there (than baseball). Academics are important. Family and friends are important.

"Now I know that if you really want something, you better go after it."

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