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20/20 vision? You might just be batting average

April 23, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Pete Rose found baseball, at its essence, to be a simple game.

"See the ball," he said. "Hit the ball."

And nobody did that more often than Rose, the sports' all-time hits leader.

But what if you can't see the ball? That happened to Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons.

"My vision just went on me all of a sudden," he said. "I was screwed."

Same thing with Oakland's Dan Johnson, who accidentally sprayed sunscreen into his right eye last spring and wound up with double vision.

"I used to hit breaking balls -- [until] I couldn't see them," recalled Johnson, whose batting average plummeted more than 40 points. He didn't even try to hit curveball pitches, he said. "I would just take them, because I would lose them."

Johnson did eye exercises during the off-season for up to six hours a day. The improvement showed in spring training, where he hit .294 with 10 walks before he ended up on the disabled list because of a hip injury.

The episodes proved to be eye-openers for both players who had always taken near-perfect eyesight for granted. Now, they're among a growing number of professional athletes focusing on new and improved technologies to recover lost vision skills.

Not all the attention is coming from players with damaged or diminished eyesight. Even players with normal vision are turning to everything from laser surgery and tinted contact lenses to eye-strengthening exercises and high-priced "ocular" machines in search of a competitive edge.

"There's so much technology with eyes now," said Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. "Players know that, hey, it's worth spending the money."

Or getting the team to spend the money, which is what Carlos Beltran did when he signed with the New York Mets before the 2005 season. Included in his $119-million contract was a clause that required the Mets to purchase an $85,000 "enhanced ocular device."

The device is a high-speed pitching machine that fires specially marked tennis balls at speeds up to 155 mph. Players try to read the markings as the ball flies by, an exercise intended to improve both focus and concentration. The Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and the Olympic champion U.S. women's softball team have experimented with the ocular machine.

Another promising advance is the amber-tinted contact lens. Baltimore's Brian Roberts, Dodgers minor leaguer James Loney and the White Sox's A.J. Pierzynski are among dozens of players who have experimented with the lenses. They are designed to filter out specific wavelengths of light, cutting down on glare and making the ball appear more clearly.

See the ball better, hit the ball better -- at least that's the theory.

"Obviously vision is huge in baseball," said Roberts, whose batting average jumped 41 points in 2005, his first year seeing pitches through amber lenses.

"Everybody looks for an advantage any way you can get it," he said, suggesting that vision training be added to physical conditioning regimens.

Loney, a career .280 hitter through his first four professional seasons, used the amber contacts for the first time last summer and led all of professional baseball with a .380 average at the Dodgers' triple-A farm team in Las Vegas and had a stint with the major league club.

The relationship between good eyesight and baseball prowess has been known since 1921, when Columbia University researchers tested Babe Ruth's vision and found the Yankee slugger's eyes worked about 12% faster than those of an average person.

"Fundamentally he wasn't the strongest. He wasn't the best athlete," said Dr. Bill Harrison, a leading sports vision specialist. "There was a lot of things that he was not. But he was the best visually. So there's some kind of connection there."

Even pitchers have found that their performance improved with vision enhancements. Greg Maddux, who won four Cy Young Awards wearing glasses and contact lenses, underwent eye surgery in 1999. He won nine of 10 starts after the procedure and the next season his strikeouts jumped and his earned-run average dropped more than half a run a game.

"After he got it, he said he could finally read the scoreboard," said Leo Mazzone, Maddux's pitching coach in Atlanta.

Mazzone, now the pitching coach in Baltimore, had no objections when hard-throwing Daniel Cabrera ditched his prescription goggles and underwent laser surgery on his right eye last fall, three days after a season in which he walked nearly seven batters for every nine innings pitched.

That's the same surgery the Orioles' Gibbons underwent two years earlier, improving his vision from 20/35 to 20/10. That means he once had to stand 20 feet from an eye chart to see what a normal person could see from 35 feet. Now, he can read from 20 feet what a normal person would have to move 10 feet closer to read.

"My eyes were always pretty good. And then all of a sudden I couldn't catch fly balls," Gibbons recalled. "Things were blurry." But after the surgery his batting average improved by 31 points.

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