Baseball: He’s legally blind, but helping kids learn how to hit
By Eric Olson
OMAHA, Neb. ó Mark Wetzel can’t tell you exactly what his wife or children look like.
He can, however, tell you how to hit a 95 mph fastball.
Even one of baseball’s greatest hitters, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, has taken the advice of the man known simply as the “blind guy.”
Left legally blind 45 years ago by macular degeneration, the 59-year-old Wetzel has immersed himself in the study of the swing for the last two decades.
His “laboratory,” as he calls his training facility, is just a few paces from the front door of the home he shares with wife, Judy, on some land on the north edge of Omaha.
Three nights a week and Sunday afternoons, he breaks down the swings of some 50 students, little leaguers to pros who travel a winding road through the woods and turn off on a gravel driveway leading past a fishing pond to the red steel building that houses two batting cages.
Wetzel knows his students’ swings, but not their faces.
He prods, encourages, tweaks.
He usually gets results.
Some have compared his logic-defying talent to that of a horse whisperer.
“Guys ask me all the time how he does it. I tell them I have no idea,” said Matt Macri, who became Wetzel’s first pupil to reach the majors when he appeared in 18 games for the Minnesota Twins last year.
Macular degeneration blurs the center of the field of vision, but Wetzel is able to use his peripheral vision to see shapes and outlines. “That’s where I live,” he said.
Wetzel said when he looks straight ahead, he can see two fingers held 2 feet from his face, but the view is cloudy.
Instead of looking directly at the batter he’s instructing, he turns his head and watches him out of the corner of his eye.
“I can tell where the knob of the bat is, and I know exactly what your elbow is doing and where your head is going to go next,” Wetzel said. “I see that outline, and I connect all the dots.
“You take your great running backs and point guards, and they have great peripheral vision. I’m not so sure they don’t see the body move in a different way than the average person does. You can almost see the body move before the body goes there.”
Of course, there are those who condescend or doubt that a blind man could really teach hitting.
The folksy, self-deprecating Wetzel brushes it off.
Asked why he teaches hitting, he says, “Well, do you think I should teach catching? I’m only good for two or three knocks to the head a day.”
Wetzel said he took to heart his grandfather’s lectures about not allowing blindness to stop him from doing what he wants.
So he yuks it up about the days he drove a truck for the portable-toilet business he once owned. That’s right. He drove, but not for the last 15 years. And don’t ask whether he had a license.
“I would go to great lengths to never turn left. That meant you had to turn against traffic,” he said, letting out a big laugh.
He also used to be a hunting guide, but he had to quit that when he couldn’t see birds’ silhouettes against the sky anymore.
Baseball was his boyhood passion, and it remains so. He makes a living charging $90 for a one-hour lesson.
He is, to be sure, doing what he wants.
He points out that he’s had eight of his players drafted the past six years, and some 30 have gone on to Division I college baseball since he started teaching 22 years ago.
“It’s a little bit unorthodox because of his vision problems,” said Gwynn, who became coach at San Diego State after retiring from the Padres in 2001. “He gets right in there, and he totally gets it.”
Wetzel holds once- or twice-a-month gabfests on the phone about the batter’s art with Gwynn and former major league hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. Wetzel met both through a friend, Omaha native and former Padres pitching coach Dan Warthen, who’s now with the New York Mets.
Wetzel earned Gwynn’s respect shortly after they met about 10 years ago. Wetzel was visiting with him in the dugout before a Padres’ game in St. Louis, and the conversation turned to Gwynn’s swing.
Wetzel pointed out a flaw, something about the way Gwynn was pushing off with his back foot.
A career .338 hitter and winner of eight National League batting titles, Gwynn was stunned.
“Major league hitters have egos, and my first thought was, ‘Who is this blind guy to tell me what I’m doing wrong?”‘ Gwynn recalled.
Gwynn said he thought about what Wetzel said, and discovered Wetzel was right.
“I decided to go to work on it, and I got it fixed,” he said.
Wetzel first had trouble seeing when he was 11. He was a good ballplayer, but he started misjudging flies in the outfield and striking out.
He was legally blind three years later. His playing days were over.
He worked a variety of jobs as he got older. There were the portable-toilet and hunting-guide businesses, and he trained dogs and operated a kennel.
Baseball came back into his life when his son, Lance, started playing in the 1980s.
Wetzel wanted to help out with Lance’s team but was shooed away.
“They wanted to put me on (soda) pop duty, or help the moms line up the snacks for after the games,” he said.
Despite his blindness, he thought he could teach hitting better than Lance’s coaches. He would watch instructional videos by sitting with his nose pressed up against the TV. Within a year or two, fathers started to bring their sons to see the blind guy.
Wetzel has come up with a philosophy that places a premium on the batter’s ability to relax. Without prompting, he talks about shifting weight to the front of the feet through incremental chin movements. He touts the “million-dollar inch,” referring to the front elbow’s alignment over the belly button, and the importance of “centering the ball.”
“When I was a player, and even when I was coaching, I never thought anyone could teach hitting unless he had done it himself,” Rettenmund said. “Mark Wetzel proved me wrong.”
Wetzel’s students come from near and far. Macri, who grew up 130 miles away in Des Moines, Iowa, started taking lessons from Wetzel 10 years ago when he was a high school freshman. Macri lives in Chicago in the offseason, but still makes it to Wetzel’s “laboratory” once or twice a winter.
A new student, 9 years old, comes in from Kearney, about 180 miles away.
“I think the good lord,” Wetzel said, “has given me a gift.”
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