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In Search of Baseball's One-Eyed Wonder

One of the most beautiful things about baseball is that so many of its players don’t “look” like athletes. You can succeed as a baseball player even if you’re not the fastest, the tallest, the most muscular, or the most in shape. But don’t be fooled: baseball takes skill. And, while it may not first seem obvious at first and is often overlooked, of all the athletic skills that drive success in baseball - strength, size, speed, fast-twitch reaction time, general physical endurance, and resiliency all do matter - no single skill may be more important to the long-term success of athletes within the sport than having excellent eyesight.

The importance of having excellent 3D visual acuity to succeed in baseball is a rarely discussed phenomenon, perhaps because many of the people who have it barely even realize they have it. It’s not something, after all, that shows up obviously on the highlight reels on ESPN. But for those in the know, it’s a softly spoken but generally acknowledged reality. Ex-MLB’er Matt Antonelli revealed in a video that nearly every baseball player he’d ever met had vision of 20/20 or better, and most had substantially better. Some studies suggest most players have vision around 20/13 or 20/12 and as many as four percent have 20/8, the best vision known to humankind.

Barry Bonds had 20/10 vision, a trait he shared with all-time great hitter Ted Williams, and cited declining vision as one of the foremost reasons he aged out of the sport so suddenly in 2007. Bonds, for years, was know for being able to pick up on the rotation of the ball the second it left the pitcher’s hand, a remarkable skill that gave him a quantifiable advantage over others. It makes sense with his vision, as he could see from 60 feet to the mound at the plate things that an ordinary person with 20/30 vision would only see clearly if they were as little as 20 feet away. No wonder he was such a good hitter.

I learned this reality the hard way. As a youngster who loved baseball, I was inexplicably and frustratingly uniquely terrible at it. While I was never the best athlete generally, I was passable at most sports. I had great endurance for running and swimming and had a uniquely excellent muscle memory that allowed me to excel at many basic point and shoot-type games like pool and cornhole. But baseball was different. More times than I can count I embarrassed myself on the baseball diamond, frustratingly striking out in slow pitch softball, eating the bloody lip from inadvertently letting soft tosses from players on my own hit me in the face, and embarrassingly misjudging the arc or trajectory of the ball when it careened in my direction off the bat. I was neither a good infielder nor a good outfielder, and I was terrible at hitting. Frankly, it was embarrassing to be so naturally bad at a sport I loved so much.

As I’ve learned more about the sport and about myself, I’ve started to put the pieces together on this mystery. For one thing, even with glasses or the ever-visually striking RecSpecs goggles I used to have to wear for sports, my vision barely approaches 20/30. Compared to a player like Bonds, it would take me three times as long to identify the movement of a pitch, a hopeless divide that doomed my prospects to ever be competitive at the higher levels of the sport. For me to have as much a chance of hitting a pitch that came in to Bonds at 90 miles per hour, it would have to be lobbed to me at 30 miles per hour. Based on vision alone, my strikeout rate at slow pitch softball should mirror that of Barry Bonds’ in the major leagues.

The bigger issue for me, however, is that I was born with monocular vision. I see out of only one eye. While it’s impossible for me to know exactly how this affects me, I do know that many basic tasks are harder for me than for other people in ways that I don’t even realize – driving, for instance. The biggest reason for this is that I don’t benefit from the binocular depth cues that fully sighted people enjoy. While most people perceive movement primarily by triangulating its changes across the visual spectrum of both of their eyes in real time, with monocular vision this isn’t an option for me. Instead, I perceive movement only to the extent that objects get larger as they approach me. It’s a makeshift coping mechanism that does an adequate job of making up for the lack of binocular depth cues in everyday life. I can sense an oncoming car in traffic, for instance, because the car gets larger in my field of site, something my brain can discern by taking numerous sequential mental images and processing their relative proportions over time.

It’s a useful cope, but it does me almost no good in baseball. For one thing, the mere speed of the pitch renders my monocular visual skillset almost entirely useless as nothing about the way I perceive movement happens in real time the way it must to be able to perceive the movements on a pitch that takes all of 0.4 seconds to get from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt. The smooth lack of detail on the ball also inhibits the ability to discern movement, which for me is greatly aided for objects that have complicated shapes. And the fact the eye I’m perceiving any of this with is my rear eye when I take my place at the plate rather than my forward eye is a compounding impediment that distorts the picture further still: rather than looking head on, I’m looking out of a far corner of a single eye with no ability to meaningfully perceive depth at that angle. When I swing at a baseball hurdled toward me, I’m effectively swinging blind.

While monocular vision is hardly a death sentence in everyday life, in baseball, the visual coping mechanisms that it necessitates to perceive movement are rendered all but useless when objects are moving at such high speeds. In baseball – a sport that requires super-rapid reaction times based on the fine-point movements of an object moving toward you at speeds up to 100 miles an hour – my visual skillset of both poor visual acuity generally partnered with monocular vision in a distant eye – do, in my experience, seem to have rendered it a sport that despite my best efforts I’ve never been able to play effectively competitively at any level. It’s been a disappointing realization, and it makes me all the more impressed by the players with the natural gifts to be able to play it well.

After going through this realization, when I heard Matt Antonelli’s comment about the universality of great vision as the one shared trait across all Major Leaguers, it didn’t surprise me. It did, however, get me wondering about how right I was. Was the rule of great vision an exclusive prerequisite to succeed at the sport? Had anybody ever flown contrary the rule that monocular vision is a baseball death sentence? Or were there any triumphant stories of those who overcame the odds to succeed as major leaguers with a single eye despite arguably the biggest handicap to traditional success at the sport?

In search of baseball’s One-Eyed-Wonder

When I was a kid, Chris Sabo was one of my favorite players. A third baseman for the Reds, he seemed like the kind of guy I’d be in the big leagues if I had been fortunate enough to be so talented. One of the things that intrigued me about him was the fact he wore sports goggles – the not-so-cool “RecSpecs” I was also forced to wear for youth sports. Unlike me, Sabo rocked them with a major leaguer’s confidence, perhaps bolstered by the fact that behind the goggles his vision was basically fine. The fact that he needed them at all was merely a reminder of how acutely perfect it had to be for him to be successful in the sport in the first place, particularly as a fielder.

Far less than representative of the 3 percent of the general population who rock somewhere between legal blindness and total blindness, vision problems in baseball are, clearly, very rare. In fact, by my calculation only around 11 baseball players ever have taken a Major or Minor League field while sporting anything resembling monocular vision.

First, three players have taken the Major League field who grappled with issues with their vision in ways that acutely affected one eye.

  • Pitcher Jose Urias, for example, developed a reputation for cross-eyedness after going through four surgeries in 2015 to remove a benign mass on his left eye that left him squinting when he pitches. Following the surgeries, Urias started pitching with the squint, with his left eye often appearing slightly closed when he throws. Urias, however, can see fine in both eyes, and the affected eye is his distant eye, not his forward eye when the left-handed pitcher pitches.

  • Hall of Fame Designated Hitter Edgar Martinez had persistent vision issues. He has a condition called strabismus, in which is eyes sometimes do not properly align when looking at an object. He has lamented that sometimes he was unable to judge the speed of the baseball because of his eyes, especially if he wasn’t rested. Although he referred to himself as “basically one-eyed”, he wasn’t blind, and so long as he was well-rested, the focusing issue only surfaced on rare occasion.

  • Pitcher Tommy Pham reportedly has had persistent vision issues in one eye with a disease called keratoconus, a disease in which the collagen in the cornea is weak, which at times can cause the cornea to bulge out like a hernia. It doesn’t cause blindness, but it did require him to get contact lenses in 2009 and an experimental ultraviolet surgery in 2011 that may have saved his career.

Two players who were successful Major Leaguers subsequently lost an eye, but were unable to make their way back to the Majors with monocular vision.

  • Bobby Slaybaugh was a talented minor league left-handed pitcher in the 1950s hoping to make a major league debut in 1952. A line drive in spring training that year hit him in the face, fractured his cheekbone, and popped his left eye out of its socket. Though an immediate surgery was able to repair the eye temporarily, it eventually ruptured, and Slaybaugh ultimately had to have the eye removed, replaced with a glass eye and an eye patch that he wore forever after. Slaybaugh fought his way back into the minor leagues, though he was never the same. He pitched two solid shutouts amid several dismal outings, compiling a 2-11 record in the minors after he lost his eye. He reportedly complained that with only one eye he no longer had the depth perception to field hitters’ bunts, and he ultimately had to quit the game, ending prematurely what once had been a promising career.

  • Rob Sims was a promising first baseman prospect for the Braves in the 1980s. While playing single-A baseball in 1988 he was hit in the skull by a pitch that shattered his left eye. He fought to get back into the game but he never could, ultimately drifting away from the game, never playing again.

Two players in fact did play in the Majors with only one eye, both pitchers.

  • Charles “Whammy” Douglas, a right-handed pitcher, reportedly lost his vision in his right eye at age 11 in a fight, and sported a glass eye for the rest of his life. He had an 11-year journeyman career in the minor leagues as a pitcher btu did briefly make the Pirates’ major league squad in 1957. There he started eight games and posted a 3.26 ERA.

  • Tom Sunkel was a left-handed major league pitcher whose left eye had been damaged when he was a child. Though he retained vision for a time, he ultimately lost sight in the eye during his career in 1941, at age 29. While he was an above-average pitcher prior to losing vision in the eye, afterward his stats plummeted, with his ERA more than doubling for the portion of his career afterward. Before he was ultimately forced out of the game, he pitched in 32 games the next three seasons, starting 15, setting the record for the most one-eyed appearances in MLB history.

One one-eyed position player did play for a time in the Minor Leagues.

  • Tanner Vavra lost an eye in a childhood injury, and was for a time considered a top prospect as a second baseman, third baseman, and infielder. He never made it past AA ball, however.

One one-eyed pitcher did recently have a lengthy career in the Minor Leagues.

  • Juan Sandoval had one of the longest monocular vision minor league careers. A successful right-handed starting pitcher already, Sandoval’s right eye was blown out in a freak shotgun blast in 2006, at age 25, at a Dominican Republic restaurant. He fought his way back into the game, transitioned to relief pitcher, and had a long journeyman career as a minor league pitcher that lasted until 2020. While he participated in Rays’ spring training and played stints in AAA after his accident, he never made the major leagues.

Two players were legally blind in one eye, but not actually blind.

  • Abe Alvarez pitched four games with the Red Sox in the early 2000s. Abe is legally blind in one eye.

  • Ryne Duren pitched for 10 seasons in the Majors in the 1950s and ‘60s. Duren was legally blind in one eye, with 20/70 vision, and wore dark sunglasses when he played to compensate.

For those with monocular vision, it’s not a particularly optimistic summary:

  • All told, only two players have ever played in the Major Leagues while sporting monocular vision. Three Minor Leaguers have played with monocular vision.

  • The only two players who have ever played in the Major Leagues with monocular vision were pitchers. No position players have ever played in the Majors with monocular vision. In the Minor Leagues, there have been two one-eyed pitchers and one one-eyed infielder, and he never made it past AA.

  • The only players who have ever played in the Major Leagues or Minor Leagues with monocular vision were players who lost their vision in the second eye in an accident, rather than those who were born without it to begin with. No player born with monocular vision has ever ascended to the Major Leagues or played in the Minors as far as I can tell.

  • The only players who have played in the Major Leagues with monocular vision were players for whom the visionless eye was their rear eye, rather than their forward, dominant eye when pitching or batting. In fact, of all of these players, I don’t even think anybody has played Minor League baseball without vision in their dominant, forward eye either.

  • Both players who pitched in the Major Leagues with monocular vision pitched for very short time periods. Charles Douglas started only eight games, while Tom Sunkel’s career stats plummeted after he lost vision in the second eye.

I’m not sure how I feel about learning this. I guess I feel vindicated that the mere fact I can reasonably hit a baseball when having it tossed to me, and the fact I can play catch and enjoy baseball in a recreational capacity, is apparently fairly rare and notable with monocular vision. I hope one day we’ll get to see a player with some form of monocular vision or blindness play in the Major Leagues. Or that vision technology improves generally to the point where vision acuteness is not such a discriminating determinant of who can be successful in baseball.

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